"Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?" railed Henry II, setting the stage for one of the English king's worst career moves.
The drunken knights, taking King Henry literally, went out and murdered Thomas à Becket. The king was flogged on the steps of a cathedral.
The Fairness Doctrine probably won't end this badly, but only because we don't flog much anymore.
These days, the attempt to rid themselves of troublesome talk radio quickens the pulse and brings froths of spittle to the lips of "progressives," who usually look askance at giving government the power to censor speech.
The Fairness Doctrine has emerged as their favorite solution to the nagging problem of conservative talk radio, especially now that Air America has proved such a spectacular flop. (Does anyone think the left would be seriously talking about bringing back the Fairness Doctrine if Air America had not bombed?)
Progressives have persuaded themselves that the success of conservative talk is not a matter of market choices, but "regulatory failures." Specifically, they blame the repeal of the rule that once required broadcasters to present both sides of controversial issues.
This is their big idea: restoring centralized 1930s-style regulation to the era of the iPhone. Very cutting edge, dude.
In the 1930s, there were maybe three broadcast outlets total. Today, there are hundreds: satellite radio, cable television, the Internet, an explosion of alternative voices. The case for government control to ensure a diversity of opinion has probably never been weaker.
Advocates say this is all about fairness, telling both sides of the story, a vigorous exchange of views. Which, of course, is the last thing they really want.
At best, the Fairness Doctrine is mandatory liberalism, affirmative action for Air America. At worst, it's a cudgel to bludgeon troublesome political opponents.
Its actual result will be an even blander and, if possible, more insipid media. You want more hours devoted to Paris Hilton and Britney's hair? Bring back the green-eyed speech police.
Supporters of restoring the Fairness Doctrine, from John Kerry to Dianne Feinstein, want government to mandate a liberal balance to conservatives like Rush Limbaugh (or me). But it would work both ways: Randi Rhodes would have to be balanced by a Pat Buchanan; 's Sly by someone boring; urban radio by opponents of racial quotas. At least in theory.
In reality, this is how it would work: Any station that allowed hosts to express controversial ideas would face constant regulatory threats and the prospect of having to turn over valuable airtime to dissenters, who would likely not be as entertaining as the host. Rather than put up with the ongoing hassle, cost and lost airtime, most radio stations would opt for blander fare. The right would be silenced, but so would the left.
Just as the lifting of regulation has helped foster a genuine explosion of different points of view, its re-imposition would mean silencing much of the public debate - at least on the airwaves controlled by the government.
Unfortunately, Democrats seem to be okay with that, because their goal here is not to have a vigorous exchange of ideas: They want to kill talk radio, gag Rush and rid themselves of the annoying voices of the right.
That's understandable, because all governments at one time or another would like to silence critics. But in our country, that impulse is tightly restricted by the First Amendment, written at a time when ideas could be expressed in only two ways: through speech, or through the press. The First Amendment absolutely bars Congress from limiting either sort of expression.
But liberals, who are usually enamored of a "living Constitution," become the strictest of strict constructionists when it comes to giving the government the right to gag speech transmitted through the airwaves.
The left justifies government speech regulation for radio and television with the hoary argument that they are "public airwaves."
But far from granting the government greater powers for regulation, the fact that airwaves are public ought to give such speech even greater protection. Speech can be limited in a private mall, or office; but not in the public square, where the powers of the censor are the most tightly constrained.
But beyond the principle involved, the Fairness Doctrine is a singularly dumb idea. A Clinton-Obama administration might succeed in ridding itself of some of the troublesome talk shows for a while, but it would be a Pyrrhic victory.
Ideas are, by nature, hard to control, especially now. In an era of podcasts, cable, satellites and the Internet, attempting to regulate speech is like trying to put smoke back in a bottle. The left can try, but it won't like the results.