Up in the Air: At the Crossroads of Media Access and Religious Freedom

Sponsor: Freedom of Expression Division
Sat, 11/21: 2:00 PM  - 3:15 PM 
Virtual Event 
Room: Zoom Room 08 
Over the past century, since the dawn of radio and up to the present day, federal communications policymakers have confronted a fundamental question: When the government allocates the nation's airwaves, a scarce public good, is the public interest served by licensing an operator who broadcasts only a single viewpoint? Put another way, can the public interest in access to diverse information and opinion be balanced against the rights of broadcasters to freedom of speech under the First Amendment? Nowhere has this dilemma been more contested than in the matter of religious speech over the airwaves. In applying the FCC public interest standard and determining what serves the "public interest, convenience, and necessity," policymakers across the decades have confronted numerous questions: Do single-faith stations provide religious education or propaganda? Do they have an obligation to air opposing viewpoints? Does it serve the public interest when religious broadcasters attack other faiths? Or stir up faith-based political movements? Does on-air fundraising take unfair advantage of listeners and viewers? Some of these questions have ultimately been decided by the Supreme Court. This paper reviews how federal policies toward media access and religious speech have evolved--from revoking the licenses of controversial religious broadcasters, and from subjecting them to the FCC's Fairness Doctrine, to today's unfettered media access for Christian Right speakers. Since passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and removal of limits on media ownership, the "electronic church" has consolidated into a handful of vast media conglomerates that are now de facto "denominations" as they also move into streaming media, print publishing, and e-commerce. Thus, religious freedom has been reconceived not merely as access to the public airwaves for religious speech, but as the implicit freedom to own media structures that compete with secular media structures. For the 1 in 4 Americans who identify as evangelicals, Christian Right speech on the airwaves is now centralized and homogenized as never before. Religious speech may not be mainstream media fare, but religious speakers now own mainstream media entities. As such, the interests of today's religious media conglomerates coincide with the interests of the media industries as a whole--to maintain the status quo and keep possession of the sprawling media empires in which they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars.


Mark Ward Sr., University of Houston, Victoria  - Contact Me