While most of the FCC’s political broadcasting rules have remain unchanged for almost 20 years, each year there are a few new wrinkles that arise, and seemingly a few misconceptions that make the rounds among advertising agencies that work with political candidates. One such misconception that seems to be circulating this year is that an ad for a state or local political candidate does not need to have their voice or picture to be a "use" under FCC rules. Only "uses" are entitled to lowest unit rates and subject to the no censorship provisions. For some reason, agencies in several states have tried to convince broadcasters that, as long as a spot has a sponsorship identification at the end (and, for television, a textual sponsorship identification 4% of screen height for 4 seconds), that spot is a "use." But that is not correct. A "use" requires that the recognizable voice or picture of a candidate be in the spot – and that is true even for spots for state and local candidates. Some advertisers may be confused by the change in Federal laws (now itself almost a decade old) that required that Federal candidates identify themselves in their ads and personally state that they approved the message of the ad, Perhaps some of the advertisers think that, because the law for Federal candidate is so detailed, and because it does not specifically cover state candidates (though several state laws now have imposed the same obligation on state and local candidates in their states), there is no requirement at all for state and local candidates to appear in their ads. But they are not correct – for a spot to be a use, a candidate him or herself must have a recognizable voice or image in that ad.
While it is not illegal for a station to run a state or local candidate’s ad when the ad does not have a candidates voice in it, there are important ramifications for the station if the spot is not a "use". First, without the candidate’s voice or picture, the ad is not entitled to lowest unit rates. There has been some controversy, not settled by the Federal Election Commission and perhaps subject to interpretations under state election commission rules, about whether a station that charges a candidate lowest unit rates for a spot not entitled to such rates may be making a corporate campaign contribution to that candidate, which is prohibited under Federal law and in most states. Most importantly for the stations, if the spot does not have the candidates voice or picture in it, the spot is not covered by the ‘No censorship" provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act. That provision prohibits a station from rejecting a candidate’s ad based on its content. But, because the station can’t reject the ad based on its content, the station has no liability for the contents of the ad. Conversely, if the ad does not have the appearance by the candidate in it, then the station is free to reject it based on its content, and thus the station could theoretically have liability for the content of the ad. As we approach a heated election season where stations don’t want the obligation to check the veracity of every claim made by one candidate about an opposing candidate in an attack ad, stations should be careful to insure that spots purchased by candidates are in fact uses, containing the recognizable voice or picture of the candidate – even for state and local candidates.
We have written about this issue of potential liability for the content of spots many times before, most recently in connection with ads by non-candidate groups that are now allowed from corporations and labor unions following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Our most recent article on that case can be found here. For more information about the FCC’s laws and policies regarding political broadcasting, check out the Davis Wright Tremaine Political Broadcasting Guide, available here.