THERE are times when free speech bucks against - free speech. The growing debate over the ``fairness doctrine'' - a longstanding United States government policy requiring broadcasters to cover controversial issues and present opposing views - is a prime example. Beating the drum for deregulation, the Reagan administration and Mark S. Fowler, recently retired Federal Communications Commission chairman, have pushed hard for repeal of the FCC fairness edict that dates back to 1949.
Mr. Fowler calls the fairness doctrine ``misguided government policy,'' which, he says, violates broadcasters' First Amendment rights and inhibits them from covering controversial matters.
US Sen. Robert Packwood agrees. The Oregon Republican insists that to allow the government to dictate what people hear or view tends to ``stand the First Amendment on its head.''
But another Republican, US Sen. John C. Danforth of Missouri, looks at it differently. Senator Danforth is co-sponsor of new legislation that would give the fairness doctrine statutory authority to bolster resistance against those who would dismantle it.
He says such congressional protection is essential ``to having a well-informed public.''
``Television is so important ... to our ability as public officials to influence, to communicate with audiences,'' Danforth adds.
In late April, the Senate by almost a 2-to-1 majority - and over the objection of the Reagan administration - approved legislation to write the doctrine into permanent law. At this writing, House action was still pending. Some see this action as part of a move by the newly constituted Democratic majority in the Senate to pull in the reins on President Reagan's overall deregulation drive of the past six years. Senator Danforth notwithstanding, most Republicans favor abolishing the fairness doctrine; most Democrats advocate keeping it.
The Senate's move toward statutory law, however, was also prompted by a ruling last year by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that the FCC had the authority to repeal the fairness doctrine without congressional approval. This decision has since been appealed to the US Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the media are of two minds on the issue, with both sides stressing free-speech arguments.
Editor & Publisher, the highly respected press weekly, reports:
``Many media interests would like to see the doctrine disappear. On First Amendment grounds, they condemn it as undue governmental interference with the opinions and facts broadcasters must and can transmit.''
The Senate Commerce Committee, however, in reporting out the bill to write the doctrine into law, asserted that ``the fairness doctrine does not require that broadcasters provide every side of an issue with the exact amount of time in precisely the same time period. Instead, the broadcasters simply must ensure that their programming taken as a whole presents issues of public importance and does so in a balanced fashion.''
One of the reasons for imposing the fairness doctrine was that, in the early days of broadcasting, AM radio channels available for allocation to those who wanted them were relatively scarce.
Those who would now mothball the regulation insist that the situation is today vastly changed - with scores of radio and television station competing for listeners' and viewers' attention.
Opponents also insist that the requirement to present different sides of an issue has kept many stations from broadcasting any side, depriving the public of important political debate.
In addition, they argue that with a significant decrease in the number of newspapers over the past two or three decades - and the difficulty of starting up new papers - it is the print medium that is now a scarce commodity.
Proponents of the doctrine point out, however, that anyone can freely enter the newspaper market without any public license. In contrast, government's traditional role in allocating and licensing broadcast channels carries with it certain obligations on the part of licensees.
A Thursday column