False “Cell Phones Are Now A Civil Right” Meme Travels Through Right-Wing Media

A New York Post blogger criticizing a government program that provides cell phones and monthly minutes free of charge to low-income individuals baselessly stated that free cell phones are now a “civil right.” Despite that phrase appearing nowhere in the news article the Post linked to, the meme has traveled through the right-wing media, including one segment on Fox & Friends that contained several falsehoods about the program.

Phrase Begins in NY Post Blog

NY Post: “Pennsylvanians On Public Assistance Now Have A New 'Civil Right' -- Free Cell Phones.” From an August 1 post on the New York Post blog Capitol Punishment:

Pennsylvanians on public assistance now have a new 'civil right' -- free cell phones. Meanwhile, the rest of us get to pay higher cell bills as a result.

Recently, a federal government program called the Universal Service Fund came to the Keystone State and some residents are thrilled because it means they can enjoy 250 minutes a month and a handset for free, just because they don't have the money to pay for it. Through Assurance Wireless and SafeLink from Tracfone Wireless these folks get to reach out and touch someone while the cost of their service is paid for by everyone else. You see, the telecommunications companies are funding the Universal Service Fund to the tune of $4 billion a year because the feds said they have to and in order to recoup their money, the companies turn around and hike their fees to paying customers. But those of use paying for the free service for the poor, should be happy about this infuriating situation, says Gary Carter, manager of national partnerships for Assurance, because “the program is about peace of mind.” Free cell service means “one less bill that someone has to pay, so they can pay their rent or for day care...it is a right to have peace of mind,” Cater explained. [Abby W. Schachter, New York Post, 8/1/11]

Article NY Post Links To Does Not Use The Phrase “Civil Right.” The article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review discussing the program did not call owning a cell phone a “civil right,” nor did it quote anyone using that term. [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 4/1/11]

“Civil Right” Phrase Travels Through Fox And The Blaze

Fox News On-Screen Text: “Debate Over Whether Free Cell Phones Should Be A Civil Right.” During an August 3 segment on America Live discussing the program, the on-screen text displayed the “civil right” phrasing. [Media Matters, 8/3/11]


Fox & Friends Segment On Program Uses “Civil Right” Phrasing. During a segment on Fox & Friends on August 4, guest host Dave Briggs, discussing the program coming to Pennsylvania, said that “a cell phone now in the state of Pennsylvania is a civil right.” Andrew Napolitano closed the segment by saying that it “used to be that rights were things like speech, and travel, and religion. In Pennsylvania, it's a cell phone.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 8/4/11]

Fox Nation Promotes Fox & Friends Segment. On August 4, Fox Nation posted a clip of Napolitano's segment, with the title “Is a Cell Phone a Civil Right?” [Fox Nation, 8/4/11]


The Blaze Uses Headline: “Are Cell Phones A Civil Right? In Penn., Apparently Yes.” Glenn Beck's The Blaze quoted from the Post op-ed and used the “civil right” phrasing in its headline. [The Blaze, 8/4/11]


Fox & Friends Segment Is Also Full Of Falsehoods

Briggs And Napolitano Peddle “Civil Right” Phrase. From the August 4 edition of Fox & Friends:

BRIGGS: Every day, harsh laws, increasing regulations and out-of-control government regulations infringe upon your rights as American citizens. Fox News senior judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano is exposing them each week in his “Freedom Files,” and folks, you won't believe these next three stories. The first one just blows your mind. A cell phone now in the state of Pennsylvania is a civil right, and you can get them for free. How is that?

NAPOLITANO: If you receive welfare in the state of Pennsylvania, either welfare from the federal government administered through the state or welfare directly from the state, along with our food stamps you get a cell phone, because the bureaucrats in Pennsylvania -- these are not elected officials, these are sort of faceless clerks that administer the law -- have decided that a cell phone is a right. And so they've increased the cost to the taxpayers of Pennsylvania by giving a cell phone with 250 free minutes per month to every welfare recipient.

BRIGGS: Every welfare recipient.

NAPOLITANO: Yes. We don't know how much --

BRIGGS: On the taxpayer dime.

NAPOLITANO: Right. We don't what this costs, Dave, because they just started the program and they haven't added up the bills yet.

BRIGGS: Oh, I can't wait to hear that total. Meanwhile --

NAPOLITANO: It used to be that rights were things like speech and travel and religion. In Pennsylvania, it's a cell phone. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 8/4/11]

Program Created By Telecommunications Act Of 1996, Not By “Bureaucrats In Pennsylvania.” Contrary to Napolitano's suggestion that “bureaucrats in Pennsylvania” who are “not elected officials” created the program, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which authorized the Universal Service Fund, was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton -- all elected officials. Among the USF program's four mechanisms is the Low Income Support Mechanism, which “assists low-income customers by helping to pay for monthly telephone charges as well as connection charges to initiate telephone service.” [FCC.gov, accessed 8/4/11]

Telecom Companies Are Not Required To Take Money From Consumers To Fund The Program. From the website of the Universal Service Administration Company, which operates the USF program:

Generally, companies that provide interstate telecommunications contribute to the fund.

Consumers may notice a “Universal Service” line item on their telephone bills. This occurs when a provider chooses to recover its contributions directly from its customers through a line-item charge on its bills. The FCC does not require this. Each company makes a business decision about whether to directly assess its customers to recover its Universal Service Fund costs. [USAC.org, accessed 8/4/11]

The Program Has Been Available In Pennsylvania For Three Years. Contrary to Napolitano's claim that the program “just started,” one of the two companies in the program “has been available to Pennsylvanians for three years.” [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 8/1/11]

Universal Service Is A Longtime Federal Policy. The concept that all Americans should be able to afford access to the telecommunications network, or universal service, has been a basic tenet of federal policy since the Communications Act of 1934. [Congressional Research Service, 4/11/11, accessed 8/4/11]