As of Today, Letters From the Public Are a Thing of the Past
No, I’m not referring to the fact that physically writing a letter seems to have joined button hooks and slide rules in the dustbin of history. Instead, another relic of history–the requirement that letters and emails from the public be kept in the public file–disappeared from the FCC’s rulebook today. Even more consequentially, that change means that it is now possible for a station that has uploaded all of its other public file materials to the FCC’s online database to eliminate its local public file, ending a requirement adopted over fifty years ago.
That news may confuse many, as our regular readers know that the FCC voted to eliminate the requirement at the first meeting of the Pai FCC on January 31, 2017. At the time, the news was reported in many publications as “FCC eliminates letters from the public from public file.” As a result, many assumed that the requirement had ceased to exist five months ago.
However, because the change affects what information the government requires of broadcasters (or in this case, no longer requires), it had to first be approved by the Office of Management and Budget under the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995. News of the OMB approval then needed to be published in the Federal Register, along with the effective date of the rule change (only in government would a statute called the Paperwork Reduction Act actually require more paperwork).
OMB approval has now been received, and the Federal Register duly reported that today, along with the corresponding effective date of the change: June 29, 2017. So, for stations that have already uploaded all other public file documents to the FCC’s public file database, including political file documents, the requirement to maintain a local “paper” file is no more.
That in turn has at least two ripple effects. First, as the FCC noted in eliminating the requirement, stations will now be able to secure their facilities at a time when the media finds itself increasingly the target of threats and violence. No longer will potentially unstable or violent individuals be able to make it past the front door merely because they know the phrase “I’d like to see the public file.”
Second, such stations will no longer need to ensure they have sufficient staff continuously on hand to guarantee a visitor can immediately inspect the local public file at any time during regular business hours, including lunchtime.
So if your station has uploaded all of its other public file documents to the FCC’s database, today, for the first time since 1965, you can hang a sign saying “Out to Lunch” on the front door. Go have a bite with your station colleagues, and regardless of where you eat, it will no doubt be a particularly tasty and very memorable lunch.