A recent article in the Chicago Tribune demonstrates that the FCC’s Equal Opportunities requirements, as embodied in Section 315 of the Communications Act, apply to candidates for state and local elective office as well as to those for Federal office. We have written before about this obligation of stations to provide Equal Opportunities (sometimes referred to as "Equal Time") to all competing candidates for the same office, yet many stations seem to be confused about their obligations as they apply to state and local political races – such as a race for mayor. While the reasonable access provisions of the FCC rules (which we summarized here), require that stations must make available time to Federal candidates (and Federal candidates only) if they request advertising time for their campaigns, if stations voluntarily make time available to a state or local candidate, then equal opportunities apply to all of the competing candidates in that same state or local race. In the case written about in the Tribune, a former Chicago Bear, an on-air host of a sports program, was forced off the air when he decided to run for mayor of a Chicago suburb and his opponent indicated that he would seek equal time from the station if the candidate continued to do his program.
This case also demonstrates several other aspects of the political rules. First, the local election is not until April, yet the station recognized that the equal opportunities rule kicks in as soon as you have a legally qualified candidate – one who has filed the necessary paperwork to run for an office. The application of the equal opportunities rule is not limited to the 45 days before a primary or the 60 days before a general election (those windows apply only to the application of the lowest unit charges that have to be made available to candidates – state and local as well as Federal candidates). See our summary of the lowest unit charge obligations here. Once a candidate is qualified, even outside of the "political window", equal opportunities apply.
This situation also highlights the problems that stations can have when on-air employees decide to enter politics. We’ve written about options that stations have in that situation, but, if the opposing candidates are numerous or unwilling to waive their equal opportunities claims in exchange for some limited amount of airtime, then the stations are left with the choices of either having to take the employee-candidate off the air, or to provide minute-for-minute equal time to the opposing candidates – for free, as the employee-candidate did not pay for access to the airwaves. And this equal time requirement applies even if the employee-candidate never mentions his or her candidacy on the air.
Even though this is a political off-year, there are a significant number of state and local races that will occur, including a number of high-profile mayoral races in big cities across the country, governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia, and vacancies in a number of US Senate seats. Thus, stations need to remember their political broadcasting obligations – just when many may have thought that they could relax after this past November’s elections.