Say It Loud: IJ Takes On the FCC

Daniel Nelson
Daniel Nelson
Andrew Ward
Andrew Ward  ·  August 1, 2022

WJBE is Knoxville’s only Black-owned radio station. Besides airing R&B and popular hosts like Steve Harvey, it’s also a fixture of the community. It features local news, up-and-coming artists, advertising for struggling local businesses, and, more recently, information about the pandemic. You’d think that’s just the sort of thing the Federal Communications Commission would promote. Instead, the government is trying to shut the station down. Why? Because the owner made a false statement on his 2008 personal income taxes—years before he owned the station. 

Longtime readers of Liberty & Law know that there are thousands of laws that irrationally limit people based on their criminal histories. IJ is fighting those laws in California and Virginia, and we won our battle against Pennsylvania’s “good moral character” requirement for cosmetologists. Now we’re taking up the fight against another “character” requirement, this time for the airwaves. 

The legendary musician James Brown founded WJBE—it’s short for James Brown Enterprises—in 1968 because other stations wouldn’t play his music. Soon after, a young man named Joe Armstrong started working there to pay for college. WJBE changed hands over the years, and it eventually went dark. 

Meanwhile, Joe enjoyed a successful life of public service as a state representative. In 2012, he bought a radio station to resurrect WJBE. And he’s been running it ever since without taking a salary. If the flood of awards at the station is any indication, he’s doing something right. 

Joe, however, also has a criminal record. He signed the 2008 tax return that his accountant had prepared knowing it was missing income. (He thought his accountant was paying taxes on the income separately.) He was acquitted of tax fraud and convicted of filing a false return. The judge called Joe’s conviction an “aberration” in an otherwise “exemplary life.” Joe served his probation, paid all the taxes, and moved on years ago. Tennessee even restored his right to vote. All through it, he kept WJBE alive. 

But that’s not enough for the FCC. Based on a character law from 1934, it’s begun a proceeding to take WJBE off the air. The logic is that Joe’s tax conviction means he won’t follow FCC rules. Problem is, that doesn’t make any sense. Joe’s conviction has nothing to do with WJBE. And he has followed FCC rules. There’s been a bit of late paperwork, but other than that, WJBE’s had a spotless record for a decade. 

Now Joe’s teamed up with IJ to defend the station that means so much to Knoxville. That’s exciting for us because this is the first Fresh Start case in which we’ve defended a client in a federal administrative proceeding. Even inside the FCC, however, we’re fighting for the simple principle we fight for everywhere else: that no one should be denied a license because of an irrelevant criminal conviction. We’ll make sure the FCC hears that message loud and clear.

Daniel Nelson is an IJ Law & Liberty Fellow, and Andrew Ward is an IJ attorney. 

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