The Federal Communications Commission lacks authority to revoke broadcast licenses in retaliation for news reporting, its chairman said Tuesday in his first public remarks on the topic since President Trump threatened the licenses of news networks nearly a week ago. Pai said "traditionally that has not been within the FCC jurisdiction".
Trump has raised the possibility of reviving the Fairness Doctrine, which the FCC abandoned in 1987.
That proposal, like Trump's assertion that "licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked" in response to "partisan, distorted and fake" news coverage, is obviously anathema to the First Amendment.
"Commissioner Pai's statement is a profile in cowardice", Andrew Schwartzman a lawyer and staff member of Georgetown Law Center's Institute for Public Representation, said in an emailed statement.
But Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly has now said that "politics" should not interfere with FCC decision-making and that the agency should remain independent. "When the president announced his intent to retaliate against a broadcaster based on content, the FCC should have rejected it".
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"This isn't the first time Pai had to respond to a Trump attack against journalists; and it likely won't be the last". Pai did not mention the president by name.
At the university event on Tuesday, Pai did not condemn Trump's tweets. "What's needed from the Chairman of the FCC is not just a restatement of the blackletter law, but a clear rejection and repudiation of the President's suggestion, including a pledge to protect the free press from political interference".
The comments are the most decisive yet from Pai in the wake of Trump's claims. Pai should "publicly refuse to entertain any broadcast-license challenges on the basis of the president's disapproval of a network's news coverage", the letter said.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) told Politico today that Pai's statement should be enough to end the controversy.
Of course, it's an open question whether Trump's tweets are actually directives. "Bad for country!", Trump wrote on Twitter last Wednesday. "I think he probably said what needs to be said, I think we know what his position on the First Amendment is, and he would have a different view than what was articulated by the president in his tweet".