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One battle where truth is trumped by politics

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 31, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- Suppose that somebody is saying something that you think is untrue. Not only do they say it, but they publish it. Not only do they publish it, but they put a bunch of commercials on television.

The more you hear it, the madder you get. How unfair, you think! How can they get away with misleading people like that!

But unless the speakers are violating a specific, limited law -- libel, copyright, trade secret, that sort of thing -- they are free to say what they want, especially in politics. Even if others say it's untrue.

This is the situation in Tallahassee. Our state Senate is rightly trying to reform Florida's taxes. But lots of citizens and interest groups are opposed. Florida's television stations are donating commercial time to criticize the Senate, and senators by name.

Maybe you've seen these commercials. They claim that under the tax plan "tourists are the winners and Floridians are the losers." They say the Senate wants to tax day care, electric and long-distance bills, mortgage interest, insurance -- even funerals.

Are these accusations true? Not specifically. The current version of the Senate plan does not give a tax break to tourists. Neither does it tax some of the items listed.

But the Florida Association of Broadcasters defends the ads, which it has produced. The proposed amendment to the state Constitution does not spell out anything. The specifics have to be set by the Legislature -- and could be changed any time. Already, the plan has been through several changes.

"Not worth the paper it's written on," says Pat Roberts, president of the broadcasters.

Senators understandably do not like being the target of nasty advertising. Some of them have even formed their own political action committee for a counter-campaign.

But this week, the senators' committee -- called Floridians Against Inequities in Rates, or FAIR -- went a step further. It got a lawyer to write a letter to Florida's TV stations, making vague rumblings about the stations' federal broadcast licenses.

"Under any objective standard, the advertisement is false and misleading," writes the lawyer, Mark Herron of Tallahassee. He said TV stations have an economic conflict of interest. (Advertising is not taxed in the plan, but the stations fear it could be one day.)

This conflict of interest, Herron went on, "has clouded your obligation to the public under the licenses granted by the Federal Communications Commission." He asks stations to stop, or to grant air time to the other side.

When you parse Herron's letter, there is not much of a legal leg to stand on. Even if there might have been an equal-time claim under the old Fairness Doctrine, that was repealed years ago. But broadcasters are prickly about their licenses. Even winning an FCC case could cost them plenty.

"I think they tried to use the bully pulpit of the Senate to scare or intimidate station owners and general managers," Roberts said. His association sent out a counter-memo telling stations they were free to do as they chose.

I asked Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, about this effort. Latvala said nobody is trying to intimidate. Often, in his experience, television stations and newspapers refuse misleading ads. Do any laws at all apply to this? Latvala says all he's trying to do is find out.

But once the answer is proven to be no, the Senate should recede from the legal stuff and stick to the political campaign. The government can't be the judge of which political speech by the citizens is "true" and which carries consequences for being "wrong." Neither should the political content of broadcasting be a factor in what ought to be the neutral matter of licensing.

It is true that TV stations are supposed to provide "public service" under their licenses. The suggestion is that Florida's television stations are violating their duty by serving their own interests, not the public's. But who is going to be the judge of that? Who is going to be the content police, deciding which political opinions on TV are true, and which deserve consequences? The government? No.

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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