In early February, U.S. House Republicans read the Constitution on the House floor following through on a Twitter pledge Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made after the GOP won control of the chamber last year. This dramatic recitation included the 45 words of the First Amendment — ”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.“
Yet within a matter of days, the new chairman of the GOP-led House Oversight Committee, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), made clear that he had threatened executives at DirecTV and AT&T, which retains a majority ownership stake in the satellite provider, to put Newsmax back on its scheduled lineup, “or else.”
Newsmax currently is not part of DirecTV’s menu of available channels, because, as explained in a company statement, “On multiple occasions, we [DirecTV] made it clear to Newsmax that we wanted to continue to offer the network, but ultimately Newsmax’s demands for rate increases would have led to significantly higher costs that we would have to pass on to our broad customer base.” For viewers, Newsmax still remains available through an even-wider video distribution platform, since nearly 300 Americans can continue to access it online for free through the Newsmax website.
This matter is a good-faith business dispute between two private companies, with no role to be played by chairman Comer. Nevertheless, Comer has made his threat to apply pressure to DirecTV and AT&T through the commencement of possible Congressional hearings. During a recent Newsmax interview with host John Bachman, he said, “So I think if anyone has ever watched the House Oversight Committee, any of our first three hearings, they have to ask themselves, do you really want to go in front of the House Oversight Committee? Because this is something that the 26 Republicans on the House Oversight Committee are very passionate about. We’re all huge fans of Newsmax.”
Put simply, it is inconsistent with the Constitution to impose programming preferences through congressional strong-arming. This bedrock principle should be applicable for any type of programming that politicians of all political leanings might wish to mandate for a particular video distribution outlet. The potential involvement of the House Oversight Committee to undermine freedom of speech and of the press suggests that reading and honoring the First Amendment, instead of just reciting it aloud, would be the more meaningful course of action for House Republicans. ■
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Stuart N. Brotman is the former president and CEO of The Museum of Television and Radio in New York and Los Angeles (now the Paley Center for Media). He is the author of The First Amendment Lives On.