Jammin’ WJBE, the only Black-owned, Black-themed radio station in Knoxville, Tennessee, got a fresh start with its resurrection in 2012. Unfortunately, federal regulators do not believe in second chances for Joe Armstrong, the man behind the revival of the historic platform.
The Federal Communications Commission has threatened to revoke Armstrong’s broadcasting license for an old conviction that has nothing to do with the station. Armstrong, a former Tennessee state lawmaker, was convicted of making a false statement on his 2008 personal tax returns – four years before he purchased WJBE and took over the airwaves at 99.7 FM and 1040 AM.
Nobody can change the past, but Armstrong has done everything possible to make amends. He served his sentence, paid every cent he owed to the government, and kept out of trouble. Even the judge in his case called the conviction an aberration in an otherwise “exemplary life.”
Armstrong also has a strong record as a station owner. He has kept WJBE on the air for more than a decade without collecting a salary, giving a voice to the African American community. Except for filing some paperwork late, he has done nothing wrong at WJBE.
For him, the project is a labor of love that started when James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, launched the station in 1968. Armstrong worked as a sales agent for the channel back then and fell in love with radio. Different owners came and went over the decades until WJBE finally closed, but Armstrong never gave up on the vision.
Some things are worth second chances, especially people. Yet federal regulators prefer permanent punishment. So in March 2022 they came after Armstrong on the theory that his conviction might signal an unwillingness to comply with FCC rules.
Rather than cave to the pressure, Armstrong is fighting the FCC’s process. Our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, represents him.
Sadly, the case is not unique. Occupational licensing and oversight boards routinely tack on “collateral consequences” for ex-offenders, creating penalties never imposed by judges or juries. One result is a loss of economic liberty, the right to earn an honest living without irrational and excessive government interference.
Amanda Spillane lost her right to work as a skin care specialist in Pennsylvania following convictions in her youth. Rudy Carey lost his right to work as a drug rehabilitation counselor in Virginia. Dario Gurrola lost his right to work as a full-time firefighter in California. And Erma Wilson lost her right to work as a nurse in Texas.
All of these people turned their lives around and tried to move forward. But the government stood in their way. Pennsylvania backed down in 2020, following legal and legislative victories for ex-offenders. But unnecessary barriers to productive activity remain on the books nationwide. Overall, tens of thousands of laws permanently punish people who already have paid their debts to society.
“Barred from Working,” an Institute for Justice analysis of state laws, includes many failing grades. Alabama, Alaska, Nevada and South Dakota are tied for last on the nationwide report card. All have scores of zero on a 100-point scale for their lack of protections for ex-offenders.
Tennessee earns a C+, putting the state somewhere in the middle nationwide. Yet the attack on Armstrong is coming from Washington, not Nashville, showing the need for reform at all levels of government.
Regardless of the source, restricting honest labor is counterproductive and unconstitutional unless a conviction relates to a person’s chosen occupation, and the government can show a good reason to interfere.
The FCC does not come close to meeting this standard in Armstrong’s case. Keeping the lights on at a radio station puts nobody at risk, and Armstrong already has proved he can do the job responsibly. Except for the minor paperwork issues, his record is spotless.
Along the way, Armstrong has helped lift others. “We look at ourselves as an economic engine for a lot of the businesses in Knoxville, both minority and majority,” he says.
Turning off this engine would not help anyone. And Armstrong has done everything he can at WJBE to deserve a second chance.