Sixth Circuit’s Decision Rejecting FCC Preemption of State Restrictions on Municipal Broadband Ownership Strikes a Blow in Favor of the Rule of Law (But a Broader Problem Remains)

Alden Abbott —  19 August 2016

The American concept of “the rule of law” (see here) is embodied in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and in the constitutional principles of separation of powers, an independent judiciary, a government under law, and equality of all before the law (see here).  It holds that the executive must comply with the law because ours is “a government of laws, and not of men,” or, as Justice Anthony Kennedy put it in a 2006 address to the American Bar Association, “that the Law is superior to, and thus binds, the government and all its officials.”  (See here.)  More specifically, and consistent with these broader formulations, the late and great legal philosopher Friedrich Hayek wrote that the rule of law “means the government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand – rules which make it possible to see with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge.”  (See here.)  In other words, as former Boston University Law School Dean Ron Cass put it, the rule of law involves “a system of binding rules” adopted and applied by a valid government authority that embody “clarity, predictability, and equal applicability.”  (See here.)

Regrettably, by engaging in regulatory overreach and ignoring statutory limitations on the scope of their authority, federal administrative agencies have shown scant appreciation for rule of law restraints under the current administration (see here and here for commentaries on this problem by Heritage Foundation scholars).  Although many agencies could be singled out, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) actions in recent years have been especially egregious (see here).

A prime example of regulatory overreach by the FCC that flouted the rule of law was its promulgation in 2015 of an order preempting state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that prevented municipally-owned broadband providers from providing broadband service beyond their geographic boundaries (Municipal Broadband Order, see here).   As a matter of substance, this decision ignored powerful economic evidence that municipally-provided broadband services often involve wasteful subsidies for financially–troubled government-owned providers that interfere with effective private sector competition and are economically harmful (my analysis is here).   As a legal matter, the Municipal Broadband Order went beyond the FCC’s statutory authority and raises grave constitutional problems, thereby ignoring the constitutional limitations placed on the exercise of governmental powers that lie at the heart of the rule of law (see here).  The Order lacked a sound legal footing in basing its authority on Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which merely authorizes the FCC to promote local broadband competition and investment (a goal which the Order did not advance) and says nothing about preemption.   In addition, the FCC’s invocation of preemption authority trenched upon the power of the states to control their subordinate governmental entities, guaranteed to them by the Constitution as an essential element of their sovereignty in our federal system (see here).   What’s more, the Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina municipal broadband systems that had requested FCC preemption imposed content-based restrictions on users of their network that raised serious First Amendment issues (see here).   Specifically, those systems’ bans on the transmittal of various sorts of “abusive” language appeared to be too broad to withstand First Amendment “strict scrutiny.”  Moreover, by requiring prospective broadband enrollees to agree not to sue their provider as an initial condition of service, two of the municipal systems arguably unconstitutionally coerced users to forgo exercise of their First Amendment rights.

Fortunately, on August 10, 2016, in Tennessee v. FCC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit struck down the Municipal Broadband Order, pithily stating:

The FCC order essentially serves to re-allocate decision-making power between the states and their municipalities. This is shown by the fact that no federal statute or FCC regulation requires the municipalities to expand or otherwise to act in contravention of the preempted state statutory provisions. This preemption by the FCC of the allocation of power between a state and its subdivisions requires at least a clear statement in the authorizing federal legislation. The FCC relies upon § 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for the authority to preempt in this case, but that statute falls far short of such a clear statement. The preemption order must accordingly be reversed.

The Sixth Circuit’s decision has important policy ramifications that extend beyond the immediate controversy, as Free State Foundation Scholars Randolph May and Seth Cooper explain:

The FCC’s Municipal Broadband Preemption Order would have turned constitutional federalism inside out by severing local political subdivisions’ accountability from the states governments that created them. Had the agency’s order been upheld, the FCC surely would have preempted several other state laws restricting municipalities’ ownership and operation of broadband networks. Several state governments would have been locked into an unwise policy of favoring municipal broadband business ventures with a track record of legal and proprietary conflicts of interest, expensive financial failures, and burdensome debts for local taxpayers.

The avoidance of a series of bad side effects in a corner of the regulatory world is not, however, sufficient grounds for breaking out the champagne.  From a global perspective, the Sixth Circuit’s Tennessee v. FCC decision, while helpful, does not address the broader problem of agency disregard for the limitations of constitutional federalism and the rule of law.  Administrative overreach, like a chronic debilitating virus, saps the initiative of the private sector (and, more generally, the body politic) and undermines its vitality.  In addition, not all federal judges can be counted on to rein in legally unjustified rules (which in any event impose costly delay and uncertainty, even if they are eventually overturned).  What is needed is an administration that emphasizes by word and deed that it is committed to constitutionalist rule of law principles – and insists that its appointees (including commissioners of independent agencies) share that philosophy.  Let us hope that we do not have to wait too long for such an administration.

Alden Abbott


I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.