Chairman Pai, Tell Us What You're Thinking About Freedom of the Press

Concerned with a “lack of full transparency,” all of the Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee wrote a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on March 10 asking him six questions on his views on the media and whether he will uphold the First Amendment rights of journalists and media outlets.

“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.” -- Ajit Pai

In response to the letter, an FCC spokesperson said, "Chairman Pai is a strong supporter of the First Amendment rights of the media and all Americans. He has protected those rights at the FCC and will continue to do so as long as he is privileged to serve at the commission."

When Pai was a Commissioner, he spoke about the First Amendment often, even wading into a larger political debate around free speech on college campuses, an issue well outside of the FCC's jurisdiction. And he was sure the FCC was violating the First Amendment when it dared to propose to examine:

  • How Americans meet their critical information needs;
  • How the media ecosystem operates to address critical information needs; and
  • What barriers exist in providing content and services to address critical information needs.

But if the examples above warranted then-Commissioner Pai to speak out, aren’t these more recent incidents just as serious?

Ajit Pai flatly stated that “The cause of free speech has no partisan affiliation.” But the 2016 election appears to have changed his mind.

"Chairman's Pai's failure to address these comments is very troubling," Victor Pickard, Associate Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, told Motherboard. "It is a bedrock American principle that a free press is a cornerstone of democracy and such core principles should not be subjected to partisan politics. Pai is entrusted to protect the public interest. There should be no wavering when it comes to protecting press freedom, especially from the FCC."

“I want this Commission to be as open and accessible as possible to the American people. I want us to do a better job of communicating with those we are here to serve.” -- Ajit Pai

Past the statutory "public interest, convenience, and necessity," Pai's oath of office calls for him to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States." Chairman Pai may prefer not to “wade into the larger political debates,” but when it comes to Constitutional rights, wading in comes with the job.

Despite his promise to be transparent, Chairman Pai has been anything but in regards to his meeting with the President. Sadly, the one thing we can be certain about is that Chairman Pai did not take the opportunity to speak truth to power and tell the President that a free and independent media is not the enemy of the people. I also am troubled that Chairman Pai declined to answer direct questions from U.S. senators about his March 6 meeting with President Donald Trump -- one day before the President nominated Pai for another term on the FCC. On March 9, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed an urgent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FCC for information on the meeting including memos, briefing papers, emails, and talking points.

Senate Democrats have asked Chairman Pai for a reply by Friday, March 17. As the nation's lead communications regulator, it is imperative Chairman Pai affirm his commitment to free speech and freedom of the press and publicly post his answers to the senators this week. He should also address EPIC's request and release any information related to the March meeting with President Trump.

The American people have a right to know what the FCC Chairman believes about freedom of the press – if he will stand up and speak out -- and we deserve to know now.

By Adrianne B. Furniss.