Amateur radio operators are enjoying a moment in the pop culture spotlight, with ham radio featuring prominently in popular TV series like Last Man Standing, Frequency, and Stranger Things.
As the public learns more about ham radio, they’re likely to appreciate amateur radio’s importance as a form of emergency communication and as an alternative communication infrastructure. That could be good news if it encourages more interest in amateur radio.
Potential hams will also quickly learn that in order to set up an amateur radio “station,” however, they are required to have a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Since 1912, a federal license has been required to operate a ham radio legally—a seemingly reasonable mandate since operators make use of public airwaves, which are under FCC regulation.
People eagerly joining up for the hobby may not realize that FCC licensure rules require them to give up an important constitutional safeguard of their privacy. In order to receive a ham radio license from the FCC, would-be operators are forced to give up their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable warrantless searches.
This last requirement is blatantly unconstitutional.
One doesn’t need to be a criminal or have anything to hide to be concerned about letting government officials into one’s home for unannounced FCC “inspections.” In a few circumstances, courts have said that warrants are not required to search businesses that operate in “heavily regulated industries,” as an exception to the Fourth Amendment. But no precedent suggests amateur radio falls into that category.
In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has become increasingly interested in holding government officials accountable to the Fourth Amendment. In several recent high-profile cases, the Court has said that when government trespasses on your property without permission with a purpose to investigate, it is a search subject to the Fourth Amendment. One might argue that now is the best time in the past 50 years to challenge this unconstitutional condition on ham licensing.
As an attorney, I’ve worked on similar types of cases aimed at protecting law-abiding citizens from unconstitutional licensing requirements. For example, I’ve represented falconry enthusiasts in California against burdensome regulations that allow state officials to enter their property for surprise inspections without a warrant. This means armed government agents can show up on their doorsteps at any time and without any stated cause, and demand entry into their homes. Not only is this kind of authorized search disturbing, it is unconstitutional.
It’s important to resist these abuses of power wherever they occur, whether it be ham radio, falconry, or any other benign hobby the government decides to target. If the government can do this, what is to stop them from requiring warrantless searches of any regulated activity?
And as long as the FCC can deploy that power against hams, it will continue to do so. But that could change if someone has the courage to stand up for the constitutional rights of amateur radio operators. It’s time for the amateur radio community to challenge these onerous and unconstitutional licensing requirements.