UPDATE Inside Towers reported yesterday the White House reversed course and withdrew Michael O’Rielly’s nomination for another five-year term on the FCC. The action came after a Senate committee approved his reappointment on July 22.
The White House gave no explanation for the change. Speculation Tuesday centered around O’Rielly’s comments last week warning against government intervention into speech on social media. President Donald Trump in May ordered the Commerce Department to petition the FCC to impose new regulations on social media moderation practices. The order directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to draw up a proposal to the FCC to limit the liability protections that tech platforms currently enjoy for third-party content on their sites under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
First Amendment advocates have raised doubts that such a move would withstand constitutional scrutiny, but the FCC on Monday opened up the proposal for public comment, according to Deadline. It now will go through a 45-day period for comments.
O’Rielly has voiced some skepticism about whether the Commission has authority to issue new regulations covering social media companies. In June, he expressed “deep reservations” during a C-SPAN program about whether Congress had given the FCC power to limit social media companies’ legal protections. More recently, last week in a speech to the Media Institute, he said, “the First Amendment protects us from limits on speech imposed by the government – not private actors – and we should all reject demands, in the name of the First Amendment, for private actors to curate or publish speech in a certain way.”
Reuters reported O’Rielly added that “like it or not, the First Amendment’s protections apply to corporate entities, especially when they engage in editorial decision making. It is time to stop allowing purveyors of First Amendment gibberish to claim they support more speech, when their actions make clear that they would actually curtail it through government action.”
O’Rielly said that his remarks weren’t directed at Trump or White House officials. O’Rielly is a Republican who joined the commission in 2013. He was facing Senate confirmation for another term that would have extended through 2024. He’s been involved in many telecom and broadcast issues, most notably the FCC’s recent C-band decision, streamlining wireless infrastructure issues and pirate radio. Inside Towers recently reported when the FCC was voting on streamlining 5G infrastructure siting, O’Rielly said he hoped the Commission would act soon on twilight towers.
Neither the White House, the FCC, nor O’Rielly’s office, commented on the withdrawal. Others, however, did react.
“Commissioner O’Rielly is unquestionably of the highest caliber in character and qualifications. He deserves the nomination to the Federal Communications Commission for another term,” WIA President/CEO Jonathan Adelstein told Inside Towers. “We hope that his nomination is resolved expeditiously so that he can continue to lead in broadband deployment.”
Former FCC official Gigi Sohn raised the notion in a tweet that the nomination was pulled due to the administration’s social-media drive at the Commission, reported Bloomberg. “I understand this nom was pulled because @mikeofcc wasn’t supportive of Trump’s illegal & unconstitutional request that @FCC interpret #Section230. Give Mike props. He stuck to his principles even as it may have cost him another term as Commissioner.”
Preston Padden, a communications policy consultant and former top lobbyist for The Walt Disney Co., tweeted: “I have been around D.C. communications policy circles for 47 years. President Trump withdrawing the re-nomination of Mike O’Rielly for the FCC is the worst thing I have ever seen.”
NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith said in a statement: “Mike O’Rielly has been a sterling public servant for as long as I have had the privilege of knowing him, a span of time covering my years in the Senate and throughout my time leading NAB. He is the consummate professional—smart, diligent, honest, and fair. For these and many other reasons, NAB has been proud to support his continued service at the Commission. But for these reasons also, I have every confidence that he will succeed wherever he casts his lot.”
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief