The Federal Communications Commission will soon issue a “primer on fairness” to radio and television stations. Although not specifically directed at religious programming, it implies stringent curbs ahead for ministers who use the air waves to make “personal attacks.” FCC sources say religious programs give them the most trouble.

Direct government censorship is forbidden by the Federal Communications Act. But the FCC feels that under its “fairness doctrine” it can require holders of radio and television station licenses to give any individual or organization subjected to a personal attack a reasonable opportunity to reply.

This means that stations, unless they want to donate extensive free time for such replies, will take the initiative to restrict personal attacks.

The FCC says it is merely restating a position taken in 1949. It was delineated in a public notice to all broadcasters July 26, 1963, in which the commission declared: “Whenever a controversial program involves a personal attack upon an individual or organization, the licensee must transmit the text of the broadcast to the person or group attacked, wherever located, either prior to or at the time of the broadcast, with a specific offer of his station’s facilities for an adequate response.”

The new primer will say that a station owner can rightfully demand to see the text of a sermon scheduled to be broadcast so that he can decide whether to risk it. Except in the case of political speeches, which are governed by a different code, stations are held responsible for knowing what they are putting out over the air. And if anyone is attacked and a complaint is received, the stations have the obligation to inform the person of the attack and to offer him time for response. ...

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