Radio waves the setting for fight over free expression

A Diamond Springs man is trying to fend off a $25,000 fine levied by the Federal Communications Commission in December for allegedly “intentionally causing interference to other amateur radio operators and transmitting prohibited communication.”

Bill Crowell, a non-practicing attorney, has been fighting the federal commission overseeing radio and television airwaves since 2006, when it first tried to deny a renewal of his amateur radio license.

“I deny all the allegations of the FCC,” said Crowell, who operates station W6WBJ. “The FCC doesn’t like what I’m saying and they want to shut me up.”

The FCC isn’t alone in wanting Crowell to shut up. Dozens of other ham users say Crowell “jams” their transmissions for sport – often filling the channel with racial, ethnic, and sexual slurs and epithets.

“The man has an illness in the head,” said Moody Law, a longtime target of Crowell’s alleged jamming.

Noncommercial amateur radio – or “ham radio” – has been around for more than 100 years. During natural disasters these trained operators often use their personal equipment to help relay information for professional emergency responders. Operators can talk to other users hundreds of miles away by stringing an antenna high in a tree or on a rooftop.

Every Tuesday, Thursday and Sundays at 8 p.m., Law’s mixed-race group of ham radio operators has tuned transceivers to 3908 kHz to check in with other Western Amateur Radio Friendship Association participants. Each session of these radio check-ins attracts 30 to 50 participants. The groups started in 1976 as mostly African American ham enthusiasts.

For months on end, W6WBJ and some unidentified friends adjust their frequency to 3908 with the sole purpose of blocking their transmissions, club participants contend.

Unlike a telephone conference call, only one transmission can be heard at a time at a given frequency available to ham users. Ham users generally follow a common etiquette for sharing the limited number of frequencies available to them.

“Amateur radio frequencies are shared and licensees may not monopolize any frequency for their exclusive use,” the FCC wrote in the December notice of apparent liability. “Deliberate interference undermines the utility of the Amateur Radio Service by preventing communications among licensed users that comply with the Commission’s Rules.”

“Mr. Crowell’s deliberate interference to other users, using voice, noises and music, directly contravenes the Amateur Radio Service’s fundamental purpose,” it continues.

Club members scattered across the West say there is a strong racial element to Crowell’s transmissions. FCC enforcement agents monitoring Crowell on Aug. 25 and 27, 2015, as part of their investigation found, “His transmissions and recordings included racial, ethnic and sexual slurs and epithets.”

Law said his group generally avoids talking politics or race.

“Why can’t we please be post-racial,” Crowell asked. He contents President Barack Obama has “worsened race relations” by speaking about police killings of black men. He said Law is “playing the race card.” Asked about his performance of a song “the Negro and the White Girl,” he said his lyrics – which said he he doesn’t believe anyway – are less vulgar than the original.

“This is just harassment of black folks,” said Bob Craig, a retired engineer who lives in Rancho Cucamonga. Craig and Law, a retired pharmaceutical sales representative who lives in Corona, are black.

Crowell said he is not racist.

Crowell spoke to The Bee, then decided to stop answering questions, citing bias.

Some evidence suggests Crowell considers himself a jammer.

“I like amateur radio because of the jamming. I’m proud of it. I make no bones about it. That’s the reason I’m in amateur radio and I’m going to stay in it for a long time,” Crowell said in a recording sent to the FCC as evidence.

Craig said Crowell’s self-selected call sign W6WBJ stands for “world’s best jammer.”

The friendship radio group moved its check-in to a different frequency after what it described as months of harassment. Moving to a new frequency is not a small matter, explained Craig. Some frequencies can’t be heard from as long a distance as others.

But it didn’t help. W6WBJ and his friends followed the group and continued their interruptions.

They moved twice more.

“It’s very childish,” Craig said. “It’s amazing that it’s taking place in a hobby that is so sophisticated.”

Users spend thousands of dollars to upgrade their equipment.

Law’s first memories of W6WBJ was Crowell chiming in on ham radio to hurl insults at paranormal radio host Art Bell. Bell was the long-time host of broadcast radio’s “Coast to Coast AM.” After the show, Bell would jump on his ham radio to talk about it, Law said. Eventually Bell stopped doing it, Law said.

The same has happened with some of the radio friendship group’s members, said Law.

“A lot of people have quit,” Law said. “They won’t take that abuse.”

Crowell said it’s the group that is trying to monopolize the airwaves and exclude him.

“They tried to run me off first,” said Crowell, who said he received his law degree from Hasting College of Law in San Francisco.

Craig and Law agree that it is high time the FCC put some teeth behind its rules.

“It doesn’t look like the FCC is going to do anything,” Law said.

Craig said the commission is more worried about other parts of its mission.

“They are more worried about getting money from the spectrum sold to the television stations,” Craig said.

FCC spokesman Will Wiquist said cases can take months to move from a proposed fine to action. He declined further comment beyond the December statement.

“It’s a process,” Wiquist said.

Ed Fletcher: 916-321-1269, @NewsFletch