To Michael O’Rielly, I would say, “Commissioner, commissioner, commissioner — what happened?”
Do you remember the news? On March 18, President Donald Trump sent to the Senate a nomination for FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly to another term on the Commission. On Aug. 3, he withdrew the nomination. The White House gave no reason for withdrawing O’Rielly’s nomination.
Looking at O’Rielly through the lens of wireless infrastructure — the focus of AGL Magazine — we see more reasons to nominate him than not to do so. The politics of FCC nominations turn on other matters, however.
What seems to be in question here is O’Rielly’s stance on rewriting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, something President Donald Trump has proposed as a means of reducing or eliminating censorship of conservative voices.
As O’Rielly explained it, the section governs online activity for those that offer services and those that benefit from services. It provides them certainty about liability for what is said or portrayed over their network.
Appearing on C-Span, O’Rielly said he has been concerned as a conservative that his fellow conservatives have been stifled or their words are being limited on certain tech platforms. However, he said he has concerns about whether the FCC has authority to act.
Appearing at the Media Institute’s Communications Forum luncheon series on July 29, O’Rielly said his critique was not directed toward President Trump or others in the White House, whom he said are within their rights to call for the review of any federal statute’s application, the result of which would be subject to applicable statutory and constitutional guardrails. He said he is concerned about opportunists elsewhere who claim to be the First Amendment’s biggest heroes, but only come to its defense when it is convenient and constantly shift its meaning to fit their current political objectives.
He said, “The First Amendment protects us from limits on speech imposed by government, not private actors, and we should reject demands, in the name of the First Amendment, for private actors to curate or publish speech in a certain way. Like it or not, the First Amendment’s protections apply to corporate entities, especially when they engage in editorial decision-making.”
These remarks may have been enough to motivate the nomination withdrawal in hopes of naming someone to the FCC who is more sympathetic to a rewriting of Section 230 in a way more aligned with the president’s objective.
However, there is one more possibility. The day before O’Rielly spoke at the Media Institute forum, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe placed a hold on O’Rielly’s nomination. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Inhofe objects to a previous FCC approval for a company named Ligado Networks to use L-band frequencies because of potential interference with GPS. Inhofe said at the time he was holding O’Rielly’s nomination until O’Rielly publicly states that he will vote to overturn the current Ligado order.
So, which is it? O’Rielly’s perceived reluctance to use FCC authority limit First Amendment protection for online service operators, or his apparent reluctance to commit to overturn the Ligado order?
Even before the president withdrew O’Rielly’s nomination, the commissioner said, “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be, and if not, I’ll go find something else to do.”
Whether the White House remains in Republican control or a Democrat takes over in January, there are scenarios in which O’Rielly may yet fill another term as an FCC commissioner. That is, if it is meant to be.