Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai said on Thursday the government would not heed calls from Senate Democrats to investigate a private broadcaster for its "news activities."
Responding to a letter sent by Senate Democrats calling for an FCC probe into the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, Pai said such an investigation would be "chilling" to free speech.
"Thank you for your letter requesting that the Commission investigate a broadcaster based on the content of its news coverage and promotion of that coverage," Pai said in a letter to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.). "In light of my commitment to protecting the First Amendment and freedom of the press, I must respectfully decline."
"A free media is vital to our democracy," Pai said. "That is why during my time at the Commission I have consistently opposed any effort to infringe upon the freedom of the press and have fought to eliminate regulations that impede the gathering and dissemination of news."
"Most relevant here, I have repeatedly made clear that the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast," Pai said.
Sens. Cantwell, Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), Cory Booker (D., N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), and others sent a letter to Pai Wednesday demanding an investigation into Sinclair's "practices of news distortion" because a Sinclair script broadcast on local news stations decried the spread of "fake news" on social media. The Democratic senators said they were seeking a federal investigation into a private news company because they are "strong defenders of the First Amendment."
Pai reminded the Democrats the First Amendment still applies to speech and news commentary that they do not care for.
"I understand that you disliked or disagreed with the content of particular broadcasts, but I can hardly think of an action more chilling of free speech than the federal government investigating a broadcast station because of disagreement with its news coverage or promotion of that coverage," Pai said.
"Instead, I agree with Senator Markey that ‘[a]ny insinuation that elected officials could use the levers of government to control or sensor [sic] the news media would represent a startling degradation of the freedom of the press,'" he added. "I also take this opportunity to reaffirm the commitment I made to several members of the Senate Commerce Committee last year that the Commission under my leadership would ‘not act in a manner that violates the First Amendment and stifles or penalizes free speech by electronic media, directly or indirectly.'"
"Thank you for your interest," Pai concluded, "and let me know if I can be of further assistance."
Pai's response is unsurprising, given his past record of defending freedom of speech and the newsroom from government interference.
Pai first came to prominence as an FCC commissioner when he exposed the agency's plan to "police the newsroom" through a study that would have sent government-backed researchers into nearly 300 newsrooms to learn how they decide which stories to run. The study, which would have asked editors their "news philosophy" and "perceived station bias," was cancelled after Pai's criticism.