The top U.S. communications regulator on Tuesday declined to criticize President Donald Trump’s attacks on broadcasters.
In his first public appearance since Trump tweeted that Comcast’s (CMCSA) NBC and other broadcasters should lose their licenses for reporting “fake news,” Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai instead noted that his agency could not do what the president wanted. Pai has served as a commissioner on the FCC since 2012, before Trump elevated him to chairman this year.
“Look, I will reiterate what I have said for many years at the FCC up to and including last month,” Pai said in an appearance at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “I believe in the First Amendment. The FCC under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment. And under the law, the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.”
Asked a second time more directly if he would block a broadcaster’s license application based on content, Pai said he would “stand with exactly what I’ve said last month and for years at the FCC.” Pai did not mention the president by name.
Other members of the commission and Democrats in Congress had called on Pai to issue a rebuke to Trump’s demand. Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel on Sunday said Pai should make clear that the first Amendment would not allow what Trump wanted. “History won’t be kind to silence,” she said on the CNN program Reliable Sources.
Get Data Sheet, Fortune’s technology newsletter.
Trump started his fusillade against NBC News last week after the network reported that the president asked about a massive spending increase to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Then the president expanded his attack in an October 11 on Twitter (TWTR) with a post that read: “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!”
Pai in the past has been a strong critic of what he called opponents of free speech, recently referring to moves to block conservative speakers from talking on college campuses. “Free speech in practice seems to be under siege in this country,” Pai said in a speech last month, adding that “people regularly demand that the FCC yank licenses from cable news channels like Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN because they disagree with the opinions expressed on those networks.”