Public Broadcasting: A Violation of Free Speech?

by Nathan Kreider

The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) recently ruled in the case Janus v. AFSCME that mandatory agency fees to a union for government employees are a form of compelled speech. Through this decision, the court declared that freedom of speech “includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all.” To summarize, the Supreme Court asserts that freedom of speech includes the right to refrain from speaking, and since money is a form of speech, mandatory fees to a private political organization are unjust.

As a result of this case, it is the opinion of the court that “[f]orcing free and independent individuals to endorse ideas they find objectionable is always demeaning” and “a law commanding “involuntary affirmation” of objected-to beliefs would require “even more immediate and urgent grounds” than a law demanding silence.”

If this is in fact the case, then what would the current Supreme Court have to say for government funded organizations like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which then funds media outlets like the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR)?

In the past, when the barrier to entry of broadcasting was quite high, an argument could be made that government might have been necessary to fund the infrastructure that would allow rapid dissemination of dangerous weather alerts and information on national emergencies.

However valid this argument may be, it does not apply to today’s world, where anyone with an internet connection and a device to use it can access the media, or become part of it. Add a microphone to the list and anyone can become a radio host. Thanks to social media, most people get at least some of their news amid updates from friends and memes.

So how is public broadcasting in any way related to the recent SCOTUS case?

First, like unions in the Janus case, the CPB is a private entity, and so are the organizations it funds.

Second, NPR Politics, PBS Newshour, and other media with news, commentary, and opinion are inherently political. It’s absolutely impossible to provide opinionated commentary without spreading ideas that a certain portion of taxpayers will not want their tax dollars going to, especially considering the current divided political climate. If a controversial figure appears on a publicly funded show to provide a perspective, some people will not want their tax dollars helping to provide a platform for a figure with these controversial views. If this person (and those like him/her) is not given a platform, the media outlet will not be representing a certain portion of the taxpayers.

Because these organizations receive taxpayer funding, this also reveals an obvious bias in favor of continued funding from the government, which is itself a political issue. For those that are against these organizations receiving funding, this is essentially compelled speech.

Third, the mandatory union fees are collected and transferred in much the same way as taxes. Because the Janus case dealt solely with public employees, the fees were collected by the U.S. government (the employer) and then transferred to the appropriate union.

If the U.S. Supreme Court is ruling that a public sector union is a political organization, then it would not be much of a stretch to label public broadcasting with political commentary as a political organization as well. If mandatory union dues (dues which are allocated apart from the union’s political action spending) are declared to be compelled speech, then would not mandatory taxation to fund private media corporations also be, by extension of the declaration, a form of compelled speech?