Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Oregon Congressman Votes For Bill He Believes Will Be Found Unconstitutional—and admits it

The congressional rep from this part of Oregon is a Republican named Greg Walden. He ain’t too bad, I guess—he isn’t like some of those jugheads from Alabama or Missouri who see communists and terrorists under their beds. But...he takes a lot of money from the area’s vested interests: developers and builders, cattle ranchers, timber interests. He’s been big on “reforming” the Endangered Species Act: that is, rendering it useless in the face of timber and development. He’s been perfectly willing to allign himself with reactionary forces, but has somehow managed to escape the image of being a reactionary.

He’s weird. I found an interview with him in the Seattle Times. He voted for a bill that he admitted the courts would probably find unconstitutional. I really question the integrity—the intellectual honesty—of a person who would vote for such a law.

Friday, July 28, 2006 - 12:00 AM


Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., thinks that someday we'll debate full First Amendment rights for broadcasters.

The price of free speech? $325,000 per bad word

By Mark Rahner
Seattle Times staff reporter

President Bush's salty talk at the G8 summit, after signing the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, has brought naughty words back into the limelight. And Northwest legislator Greg Walden is in a singular — maybe paradoxical — position when it comes to that law.

He has a journalism degree and owns five radio stations in Southern Oregon. And as a Republican U.S. congressman for Oregon's huge Second District who sits on the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, he spoke and voted in favor of the strict Federal Communications Commission fines — hiked tenfold to $325,000 for violations.

As a writer with no small stake in free speech, I shot the ... that is, I had a politely adversarial exchange with Walden, who spoke from his Hood River, Ore., home.

Why would a radio-station owner back a law that could put him out of business?

Well, the industry was clearly at a point where the level of fines being issued by the commission were not serving as a deterrent now. In part, that's because the commission hadn't been aggressively pursuing these issues, so the boundaries continued to move and move and move, until the public got tired of it and the Congress acted.

A miniscule number of individuals actually complain to the FCC, and most complaints are generated by mass e-mailings from such activist groups as the Parents Television Council. So for many Americans, isn't this a non-issue?

Well, it may be, although ... I hear about it in community meetings and such. But beyond that, I think boundaries had been pushed to an extreme level in some instances, certainly.

You said you were confused about the boundaries — harsh language allowed during a broadcast of "Saving Private Ryan" but not, say, "NYPD Blue."

The FCC's recent decisions leave you a bit confused as broadcasters to where the limits are, because certain words used in the context of "Saving Private Ryan" they decided fit an artistic pattern and are allowed. However, were those same words used in a live interview, a TV show, they have decided to fine stations. So as a broadcaster you say, "How do I know in advance how you're going to rule?"

Some people might say they don't want someone else deciding for them what's offensive — and "protecting" them. What's obscene to me may not be obscene to you.

True. But if you're the licensee and you are subject to upwards of a $325,000 fine for one instance, we need a that tells us very clearly: These words aren't allowed regardless of the context. Now I could also make a lot of arguments (that) First Amendment rights someday should be extended to broadcasters. But today they're not. And the courts in the past have differentiated between a paid service such as cable or a satellite-delivered format ... and free over-the-air Federal Communications Commission-licensed broadcast stations.

Since you bring up the First Amendment, it says, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." That seems pretty clear.

It is, but we all know the famous cases about you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater. So I'm not a lawyer, but as I understand the decisions involved here, what they said was the broad signal is so ubiquitous into the home that there can be limits during certain hours because children are so present. My frustration as a broadcaster is: Fine, on the TV front, that takes care of the first four channels. Now what do you do for the other 396 that are ubiquitous in the home either through cable or satellite?

Do you think the fines will eventually stretch to cable and the satellite?

I actually think they'll probably go the other way. I think eventually a court will throw it all out as a violation of the First Amendment because broadcast programming is no longer the only programming coming into the home. Now again, you still have this differentiation between that which is paid for and that which comes in free, and the courts have hung their hat on that a bit, too. With all these other services coming our way through the Internet, through satellite, through cable and now eventually through your phone service, I think that argument begins to wash away.

The fine increase was meant to get the attention of big corporations, but what about the smaller businesses like yours?

Well, that's a concern I have. In the House version of this legislation, the fines were actually higher — I think $500,000 — and there was a three-strikes-and-you-lose-your-license provision. But I also got language in there that said the FCC needed to specifically take into account the size of the market, the ability of the broadcaster to actually control the programming. So I had all those protections in the statute that we did pass in the House; all that got stripped out and just became a tenfold increase in the fines.

A federal court has just halted distribution of machines that clean up DVDs to make them family-friendly. Wouldn't you say that overall, it's misguided to try making everything safe for children's consumption when that's really parents' jobs?

It is a parent's job, primarily. I would concur with that. And I think that certainly in the cable industry you have that ability with the remote control and the ability to set with the V-chip what shows can be seen and what can't, and so you do self-editing.

In broadcast you don't quite have that same capability. I think that's part of what differentiates it. Plus again, it was set up to be this way, and it's never enjoyed full First Amendment rights. ... So at some point we'll have a First Amendment debate about broadcasters.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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