It's urgent that Ajit Pai voices his support for a free press
© Greg Nash
No citizen should be denied the news and information needed to participate in our democracy. Our freedoms of speech and expression are inextricably linked to freedom of the press and an uninhibited, competitive, and vibrant marketplace of ideas. But freedom of the press is in jeopardy from a president who repeatedly calls our media “the enemy of the American people,” and by others in government who are failing in their duty to protect our liberties.
 
The new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, has been an eloquent spokesman for freedom of the press. I’m confident he agrees that we should not foreclose any points of view unless they pose a threat of violence. Just last year, he said, “I think it's dangerous, frankly, that we don't see more often people espousing the First Amendment view that we should have a robust marketplace of ideas where everybody should be willing and able to participate.”
 
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No one person – not even the president – should have a monopoly on our national discourse. Pai also once said, “In my view, anyone who has the privilege of serving at the FCC—any preacher with a pulpit, if you will—has the duty to speak out whenever Americans’ First Amendment rights are at stake.”
 

The FCC is an independent agency of the U.S. government, created by Congress to ensure our nation has a world-class communications system that is available and affordable to everyone. The commission is the country’s primary authority for enforcing communications law. It also provides public interest oversight for telecommunications and promotes technological innovation.

America’s First Amendment rights are clearly in peril. When the president of the United States calls journalists enemies of the American people, when his top advisors call journalists “the opposition party” and promise that the president’s battle with the press will only “get worse,” when the White House press secretary bars journalists from official briefings, every citizen should be alarmed.

Surely the media have much room for improvement. The consolidation, commercialization, and “skim the surface” journalism that mark much of contemporary journalism do not serve us well. The FCC could help fix that, but not by going down the road the president is racing. Declaring the press the enemy and cutting off its legs is exactly the wrong way to go. Self-government only works when people are sufficiently informed. The First Amendment must not fall victim to the Trump presidency. 

Unfortunately, the pulpit to protect the press can also be a platform to suppress it. Some presidents, like Richard Nixon, sought to use the FCC to punish those exercising First Amendment rights. We can never let that happen again.

Appointed to the FCC chairmanship by President Trump, Chairman Pai is in a difficult situation. But this is a time requiring a “profile in courage.” Three years ago, then-Commissioner Pai said, “The government has no place pressuring media organizations.” Chairman Pai needs to repeat that now, from his new position of authority. His voice would be heard around the nation. And it would let the new administration know that the FCC is both independent and determined to do its duty.

I don’t believe the election changed Pai’s convictions. I certainly hope not. I hope he agrees with me that the Constitution is not a partisan issue. When good people stay silent, bad things happen. We must not let censorship, whatever its source, win. Mr. Chairman, we need to hear from you now.
 
Michael Copps (@Coppsm) served as a Democrat on the Federal Communications Commission from 2001–11, and as acting chairman for a period in 2009. He is a special adviser for Common Cause, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C.

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