Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · September 15, 2023

ARLINGTON, Va.—A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) administrative law judge ruled that WJBE owner Joe Armstrong should not have his broadcast license revoked. The FCC was seeking to take away the license, not for anything Joe played over the airwaves, but because of a seven-year-old conviction for something that happened years before Joe bought the station. In 2022, Joe teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to defend himself in the FCC’s administrative court process.

“Owning WJBE is how I continued to serve Knoxville after leaving the state legislature, and I am grateful that the FCC’s judge concluded it would be wrong to take that away,” said Joe. “I’m glad that the notion that I should be permanently punished was rejected, and I hope that this example will help other people who face similar barriers to jobs and opportunity.”

A decade ago, Joe Armstrong revived a Black-owned and Black-community-focused radio station once owned by legendary musician James Brown. Today, WJBE broadcasts popular music, nationally syndicated talk shows, community news, church services and more. However, the FCC informed Joe that it was moving to take away his broadcast license because he was convicted of making a false statement—on his 2008 personal tax return.

Joe served his sentence, paid his fines and even had his civil rights restored, but the FCC questioned his ability to follow its rules. These types of permanent punishments for offenders are threaded throughout federal and state laws and regulations, and IJ has defended people nationwide who found it difficult to make a fresh start because of government barriers.

“The decision to let Joe continue broadcasting is a testament to his character and the important work he did to revive Black-community-focused radio in his hometown,” said IJ Attorney Daniel Nelson. “The FCC irrationally tried to deny Joe’s license, which he had used to make a fresh start after legal difficulties. This a strong decision, and we hope that the commissioners will firmly reject any further attempt to take Joe’s license.”

The Institute for Justice represents people fighting irrational government laws that seek to permanently punish them for old crimes. Nationwide, there are more than 15,000 laws that limit jobs for people with criminal records. IJ helped Virginian Rudy Carey challenge a law that forever banned him from becoming a drug counselor because of an unrelated, old, conviction. Rudy recently received a pardon and should be able to resume work as a counselor.

“Punishing people beyond the sentences handed down by judges keeps them from making a fresh start after they’ve paid their debt to society,” said IJ Attorney Andrew Ward. “Barriers like the one Joe faced exist across the federal and state governments. There is broad consensus that these laws are not productive, harming individuals and their communities.”