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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai: Free Speech ‘Under Siege’ in U.S.

WASHINGTON — FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that “free speech in practice seems to be under siege in this country,” pointing to protests to silence speakers on college campuses and to messages that the commission receives to try to shut down news channels.

“Fewer today seem to be willing to defend to the death others’ right to say things with which they might disagree,” Pai said in a speech on Friday before the Future of Speech Online forum. He called the attempt to shut down speeches and free expression on college campuses “especially distressing,” and cited incidents at Evergreen State, Yale, and Berkeley. Conservative writer Ben Shapiro spoke at Berkeley on Thursday, amid heavy security given threats of protest and even violence.

Pai added that the “common thread is the belief, shared by too many, that those with views perceived as unpopular or offensive should be silenced. One has to wonder whether those who will one day carry the torch will be dedicated to open debate or will instead seek to marginalize viewpoints they don’t like.”

Pai said that he also sees “worrying signs” at the FCC, pointing to Twitter messages in which “people regularly demand that the FCC yank licenses from cable news channels like Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN because they disagree with the opinions expressed on those networks.”

“Setting aside the fact that the FCC doesn’t license cable channels, these demands are fundamentally at odds with our legal and cultural traditions,” Pai said.

The event was sponsored by the Newseum Institute, the Charles Koch Institute, and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Democrats have pressed Pai on whether he agreed with President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media.

At a Senate hearing earlier this year, Democrats asked Pai whether he agreed with one of Donald Trump’s tweets, that the “fake news media” is the “enemy of the American people.” At a Senate hearing, Pai refused to say whether he agreed with Trump, but he said that while he was a staunch defender of the First Amendment, he did not want to “wade into the larger political debates.” In a subsequent letter to Senate Democrats, Pai said that he did not agree that the media was the “enemy of the American people” and noted that Trump had been referring to the “fake news.” (Trump, though, did single out the New York Times, CNN, and NBC News).

In his speech, Pai also said that the “hopeful” sign was the expansion of internet access, and he outlined one of his signature initiatives as FCC chair, to close the so-called “digital divide.”

“The most significant digital divides are along economic and geographic lines. Basically, if you’re wealthy and live in a city, you should be in good shape,” he said. “If you’re low-income and/or live in a rural area, you’re much more likely to have a problem.”

He said that he was worried that a shared “cultural commitment” to free speech “is beginning to unravel,” and cited a University of Pennsylvania survey showing that only 48% of Americans knew that freedom of speech was guaranteed by the First Amendment, and 37% couldn’t name any First Amendment rights at all. He also cited a Pew study showing that 40% of millennials “believed that the government should be able to bar individuals from making certain offensive statements.”

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