The Barack Obama – King George Connection

-By John Armor

Barrack Obama seems poised, based on his associates and his appointments to date, to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine for American radio programming, If he does that administratively through his naming of a new Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he’ll be taking a page out of King George III’s book of policies toward the American colonists.

Say what?

Isn’t that a bit of a stretch since the number of radio stations in 1776 was shockingly low, and King George did not have a Royal Communications Commission? Well, actually he did, and thereon hangs a tale.

The slogan, “No taxation without representation,” spread when The Stamp Act was passed in 1765. It was repealed a year later, however. British taxes on the American colonies were at their highest in 1769 under The Townsend Act. Those taxes amounted to 6 cents a year on those families using money rather than subsistence and barter. That tax burden was one-third of one percent of the average family’s income. (High taxes were NOT the reason for the American Revolution. But that’s a story for another day,)

The Stamp Act had an additional purpose unrelated to tax revenues. Under the Act, all major documents from court pleadings and deeds to private wills and newspapers, had to be on paper bearing the royal stamp. It was a crime to produce any such document except on stamped paper.

The Royal Governors of the various colonies decided which Americans would be allowed to purchase this essential paper. Private citizens who owned presses and published newspapers were dependent on the royal governors in two ways. First, a goodly part of their income came from publishing government documents and announcements. Second, if they became disfavored by the Governor, they would receive no stamped paper, and would be out of business.

It is true that each colony had a popularly-elected legislature. However, each Royal Governor had an absolute veto; it could not be overridden, So the local laws reflected the will of the Governors, not the people.

The King and Parliament in England and the Royal Governors in the colonies all recognized the dangers of printers publishing whatever they wanted in their newspapers. Only about one third of all colonists could read, and newspapers consisted mostly of broadsheets, two pages front and back. Still, newspapers had a wide impact. Newspapers were passed from hand to hand, and read aloud in taverns and other public places.

The first attempt to control the press in the American colonies consisted of a law forbidding any ownership of a printing press without approval of the Crown. That failed, because presses could be moved and hidden. The Stamp Act had the potential to be more effective because newspapers had to be circulated in public. It was readily apparent whether they were printed on stamped paper. But widespread resistence and some acts of vandalism by the Sons of Liberty caused Britain to repeal the Act.

Consider the reason why we refer to television, radio, and in some circumstances today the Internet, as the “press” and the comparison with President-Elect Obama’s intended policies becomes clear. When freedom of the press was borrowed from the Massachusetts Constitution and incorporated in the third proposed amendment to the US Constitution, the only form of mass communication was broadsheets (which could be bound into books) from hand-crank letter presses, printed one at a time.

It is clear from their writings that the Framers intended to protect the freedom of ALL public communications, particularly on public issues and especially when critical of the government. In America today, most public communications, by volume and impact, have nothing to do with ink on paper. The electronic media are increasingly the venue where public debate takes place, and where criticism of the government will take place – if possible.

Under the Fairness Doctrine, which the Obama Administration may seek to reestablish, the government would tell talk radio how far they can go – what they can, and cannot, broadcast. It will be the electronic version of the Stamp Act by which King George sought to control the most free-wheeling part of American communications of his day.

That effort by the Obama Administration should fail. Today we have a First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom… of the press…” And today, for the time being, we have at least five Justices of the Supreme Court who take that Amendment seriously.
John Armor is a graduate of Yale, and Maryland Law School, and has 33 years practice at law in the US Supreme Court. Mr. Armor has authored seven books and over 750 articles. Armor happily lives on a mountaintop in the Blue Ridge. He can be reached at:

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