KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—A decade ago Joe Armstrong brought a Black-owned and Black community focused radio station back to life in Knoxville. Today, WJBE broadcasts popular music, nationally syndicated talk shows, community news, church services and more. However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently informed Joe that it is moving to take away his broadcast license, not over anything related to what is going out over the air, but because of a six-year-old conviction for something that happened years before Joe bought the station.
Joe served his sentence, paid his fines and even had his civil rights restored, but the FCC is now questioning his ability to follow its rules. These types of permanent punishments for offenders are threaded throughout federal and state laws and regulations. The Institute for Justice (IJ), a nonprofit, public interest law firm, is defending Joe against the FCC action and is prepared to defend him in federal court if necessary.
“No law—at the FCC or anywhere else—should irrationally deny Americans a fresh start,” said IJ Attorney Andrew Ward. “Joe obviously has the ‘character’ to run a radio station. He’s proven that for a decade.”
The original WJBE was started in the 1960s by James Brown (James Brown Enterprises) and Joe worked at the station as a young man. Brown eventually sold WJBE and, while there were successive Black-owned stations, they struggled financially; after 2006, there was no station on the air focused on serving the Black community. In 2012, Joe purchased an existing station and, in tribute, changed the call letters to WJBE. Joe does not take a salary from the station, seeing it as his way of supporting the community.
“Knoxville was without a radio station dedicated to the Black community for years and I was grateful to be able to bring WJBE back to life,” said Joe. “I have a decade-long record of working well with the FCC and my personal legal problems have nothing to do with the station. I served my sentence and paid my fines. I’m far from the only person to run into these kind of senseless barriers and I hope that my fight can motivate courts and legislatures to rethink permanent punishments.”
Joe served for decades in the Tennessee General Assembly. In 2008, he legally sold cigarette tax stamps for a profit. His accountant did not properly pay the taxes on this sale and Joe got in trouble with the IRS. In 2016, he was acquitted of the most serious charges but convicted of a single false statement count. After his conviction, he retired from the Legislature. Joe has served his time for the offense—which the judge called an aberration in an otherwise “exemplary life”—and his civil rights were restored in 2020.
In 2017, Joe reported his conviction to the FCC and did not think it was a problem for the station. But now, five years later, the FCC is threatening to revoke his license. WJBE has no complaints from the FCC, but the agency says Joe’s conviction might have some bearing on his willingness to comply with their rules.
The Institute for Justice defends economic liberty, property rights and the First Amendment nationwide. IJ 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. In Pennsylvania, IJ successfully eliminated barriers to obtaining a cosmetology license that kept beauty school graduates from using their training. In California, IJ is fighting for firefighters who served the state while incarcerated but cannot get the EMT license they need for full-time jobs. And in Virginia, IJ is challenging a law that prevents people with certain convictions from ever becoming drug counselors.
“One in three Americans has a criminal record and laws that impose permanent punishments go beyond the sentences handed down by judges and juries,” said IJ Attorney Daniel Nelson. “People deserve the opportunity to make a fresh start by using their skills and talents. We should rethink the barriers that keep people from fully contributing to their communities.”
Press Conference Advisory
Wednesday, May 25, at 11:00 a.m.
2348 Martin Luther King Jr Ave
Knoxville, TN 37915
- Joe Armstrong, WJBE owner
- Andrew Ward, Attorney, Institute for Justice
- Daniel Nelson, Attorney, Institute for Justice