John Banzhaf III, a George Washington University law professor, played a leading role in pushing cigarette advertising off television and radio in 1970. Improved safety standards for school buses. Blocked dry cleaners from charging women more than men for laundering their shirts.
Now Banzhaf has focused his sights on a new, high-profile target – the name of Washington’s professional football franchise – and team owner Dan Snyder has grounds to worry.
Banzhaf has opened a useful new legal front in the swelling campaign to pressure Snyder to change the name. He has filed one legal petition and threatened more to block renewal of federal broadcast licenses for radio and TV stations that routinely use the team’s name on the air.
Banzhaf’s argument: The team name is a racial slur, offensive to many Native Americans, so airing it is against the public interest. He says the term violates Federal Communications Commission standards against indecency, profanity and hate speech.
If the FCC could make a huge fuss with CBS for briefly exposing Janet Jackson’s nipple during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, Banzhaf says, then it ought to be able to use its weight to push an offensive term off the airwaves.
Banzhaf’s cause got a rhetorical boost two weeks ago when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler denounced the team’s name. He is the second member of the five-person FCC to express concern over it.
The FCC typically grants broadcast license renewals within four months. But even a whiff of legal opposition can cause considerable delays. The stations can continue to operate while the renewal is on hold. But delay can make it difficult for an owner to sell a station or get loans.
Broadcasters enjoy First Amendment safeguards for free speech. But Garziglia said the stations’ dependence on the federal licenses makes them vulnerable to public pressure.
Banzhaf is not the first to recognize that the FCC might be a tool to push for a name change. Former FCC chairman Reed Hundt and 11 other top communications law experts wrote Snyder last year warning him the name might run afoul of FCC guidelines.
But Banzhaf is apparently the first to take action with the FCC.
A man who defeated the tobacco industry deserves to be taken seriously.