In Case of Emergency, Break the Constitution


ACRU Staff


February 17, 2011

This column by ACRU Senior Fellow Robert Knight was published February 11, 2011 on The Washington Times website.

Did you know that the nation soon will undergo a test that will determine how effectively the president of the United States can seize control of the media in the event of an “emergency”? Well, that’s not the way the administration is putting it.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a press release on Feb. 3 outlining the plan for the “first-ever presidential alert.” On a date yet to be set, the presidential alert will go “to television and radio broadcasters, cable systems and satellite service providers who will then deliver the alert to the American public,” according to the FCC.

This is not an opt-in plan. “The national test will require [Emergency Alert System] participants to be part of the exercise and to receive and transmit a live code that includes a presidential alert message to their respective viewers and listeners.”

Maybe it’s harmless. Maybe it’s somehow needed. The current EAS replaced the old Emergency Broadcast System back in 1997, and both list a presidential message as the first priority. But it has never been used for that.

That’s partly because we have so much instant media anyway. Also, having the president seize the media even for a short time sounds more like something out of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, the Castro brothers’ Cuba or Dear Leader’s North Korea.

This “first-ever” presidential alert dovetails with another development, Sen. Harry Reid’s proposed presidential Internet “kill switch.” The Cyber Security and American Cyber Competitiveness Act of 2011 (S. 21) would “secure the United States against cyber attack, to enhance American competitiveness and create jobs in the information technology industry, and to protect the identities and sensitive information of American citizens and businesses.” Right now, the bill has few details and is considered a “place holder” until a more muscular version appears.

According to’s David Kravets, a Senate Homeland Security Committee aide said a previous version of the proposed law would, for example, require “the system that connects the floodgates to the Hoover Dam” to cut its Internet connection if the government learns of a cyber-attack.”

“What’s unclear, however,” the Wired article says, “is how the government would have any idea when a cyber-attack was imminent or why the operator wouldn’t shutter itself if it detected a looming attack.” Good questions.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, who co-sponsored the bill in the 111th Congress, insists that the law would not create a threat to free speech as in Egypt, where the embattled Mubarak government has tried to shut down the Internet. We have her word on it.

Speaking of seizing power over the Internet, Mr. Obama’s FCC issued “net neutrality” rules for the Internet in December despite Congress’ refusal to grant that authority and a federal appeals ruling against the FCC in April in Comcast v. FCC.

Legally speaking, the FCC has as much clout over the Internet as it has over catfish farms – zero. But it went ahead anyway, thumbing its nose at the Constitution.

However, elections have consequences, and some of the shoe is on the other foot. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, is sponsoring the Internet Freedom Act (H.R. 96), which would prohibit the FCC from meddling. The newly constituted House of Representatives will soon hold hearings and votes on the FCC’s illegal action and other executive branch abuses (i.e., Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson’s megalomaniacal anti-carbon witch hunt).

The FCC additionally has “diversity czar” and Associate General Counsel Mark Lloyd concocting rules designed to strangle conservative talk radio. Because the public is on to the danger of reimposing the Fairness Doctrine, which had hushed talk radio until the FCC abandoned the policy in 1987, Mr. Lloyd wants to reimpose it piecemeal. We know this because as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, Mr. Lloyd co-wrote a June 2007 report with authors from another left-wing group, the Free Press, titled “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio.”

Because it’s clear that the public would hate any revival of the Fairness Doctrine, the report recommends a backdoor approach to increase “localism” and “diversity” of ownership and content, as follows:

• Restore local and national caps on ownership of commercial radio stations” (Page 9). This would effectively break up the companies that provide nationally syndicated programs with such hosts as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin.

• Ensure greater local accountability over radio licensing” (Page 10). The report recommends limiting licenses to just three years and forcing station owners to face community-monitoring boards. Imagine these panels stacked with “community organizers” from the Service Employees International Union.

&bull Require commercial owners who fail to abide by enforceable public-interest obligations to pay a fee to support public broadcasting” (Page 11). Even though NPR’s 860 stations are partially tax-supported and claim a total weekly audience of 26 million, the report says some private-sector stations would have to pay for more public radio.

So, let’s recap: A “first-ever” presidential alert will be delivered by all major broadcast and cable media. A presidential “kill switch” is proposed for the Internet. The FCC has imposed “net neutrality” rules on an industry over which it has no authority. And a “diversity czar” at the FCC is making up rules to cripple conservative talk radio.

Given this pattern, we might want to revisit the late rocker Frank Zappa’s view when he was asked about what he thought of the U.S. government: “I think they’re trying to take over the country.”



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