Why defenders of the First Amendment should oppose bill to defund NPR

I am not a lawyer and don't play one on TV. With that disclaimer, I voice my opposition to congressional efforts to squeeze federal money from National Public Radio. While these actions may not turn out to be technical violations of the First Amendment, they clearly violate its spirit.

Under the guise of budget discipline, Republicans passed House Bill 1076 last week, the vote falling along party lines. Whatever money is saved, the real purpose of the bill is to punish NPR for its perceived liberal bias. If NPR leaned a bit to the right, do you think conservatives would have tried to strip it of federal dollars, no matter what the cost?

In essence then, the bill, which has little chance of becoming law, is a cynical attempt to restrain not just an organization, but the content it produces. That feels, or at least smells to this amateur legal nose, like a violation of the First Amendment, deserving the "strict scrutiny" of the court.

This is the first time I have written against a piece of legislation, and I do so cautiously, not as a representative of The Poynter Institute, but as a citizen and a scholar devoted to First Amendment rights and responsibilities.

It’s also time for me to disclose my own bias. In addition to being a regular listener, I have had a long professional relationship with NPR. I have been interviewed on occasion, have conducted training sessions for pay, and have written essays aired on public radio.

I know NPR well enough to understand some of its imperfections and pretensions, including classic examples of mismanagement that have resulted in recent scandals.  The firing of Juan Williams for his commentary on Fox television was a self-destructive and clumsy effort. A secret video made by conservative activists lured a top NPR fundraiser into expressing his disdain for the Republican right.

That video, and not the deficit, became the bloody shirt waved by Republicans to "defund" NPR.

On principle, H.R. 1076 should be opposed from all corners of the journalism world and by anyone who claims to care about freedom of expression. Proposed by Representative Doug Lamborn, a Republican from Colorado, the bill is an attack on one news organization, National Public Radio.

The bill seeks to remove funding of NPR, but goes one important step further. It prevents NPR’s member stations across American from spending any federal dollars on any radio content produced by NPR. That would include Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, This American Life, A Prairie Home Companion, Being, Classical 24, World Cafe, and, worst of all, Car Talk.

Conservatives have long accused NPR of a liberal bias and have raised the issue of whether the network deserves taxpayer support in the form of federal funding. About 10 percent of NPR’s annual budget comes from such funding, with the rest from dues from member stations, listener contributions and foundation grants.

Not all attacks on public broadcasting have come from the right. Michael Gartner, a former president of NBC News, argued for years that public broadcasting should and could make it on its own. The marketplace should determine its future.

Scholar and media critic Jay Rosen argues that, free of government money, NPR could become a more aggressive critic of Washington, a watchdog with sharper teeth.

Perhaps NPR would be better off without any federal funding. I don't have a dog in that fight. My concern is that the federal government would grant money to local public radio stations -- supposedly in the public interest -- and then make a law abridging the right of those stations to air certain content.

Hold on to that thought. I shall return in a minute.

OK, I’m back. I have just repeated a ritual I follow every day at work when I walk into the Poynter Institute. I look down at a large marble plaque that contains the words of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Here they are:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

There, in one sentence, our five most precious freedoms are protected. The two words that stand out to me in today’s reading are: "no law."

Again, I am no legal expert, but it is hard for me to imagine how H.R. 1076 would pass constitutional muster. For the record, I would also oppose reinstatement of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” and its equal-time provisions that could be used to muzzle forms of conservative talk radio.

No law means no law.

There are many cases, of course, in which funding from government comes with strings attached. In cases such as human cloning, abortion or how food stamps are spent, there are green lights and red lights on how federal money can be used.

But this bill seems different, a blatant effort by the House to circumnavigate the requirements of the First Amendment. While there are legal restrictions on speech, such as obscenity and slander, a mostly conservative Supreme Court has acted in recent cases to uphold rather than tear down First Amendment protections, even in cases of truly obnoxious speech, such as anti-gay picketing at military funerals.

Then why voice opposition to this bill if it has little chance of becoming law? The Senate may not pass it, and the president would probably veto it.

There are times when the health of the commonwealth requires us to shove the camel's nose out of the tent and kick the salesman’s foot out the door. To quote one of America’s greatest lawmen, Barney Fife, there are some bad things that a good sheriff just has to "nip it in the bud.”

This, fellow journalists, is one of them. No law means no law.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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