The MusicFirst coalition last week asked that the FCC investigate broadcast stations that allegedly cut back on playing the music of artists who back a broadcast performance royalty, and also those stations who have run spots on the air opposing the performance royalty without giving the supporters of the royalty an opportunity to respond.  While the NAB and many other observers have suggested that the filing is simply wrong on its facts, pointing for instance to the current chart-topping position of the Black Eyed Peas whose lead singer has been a vocal supporter of the royalty, it seems to me that there is an even more fundamental issue at stake here – the First Amendment rights of broadcasters.  What the petition is really saying is that the government should impose a requirement on broadcasters that they not speak out on an issue of fundamental importance to their industry.  The petition seems to argue that the rights of performers (and record labels) to seek money from broadcasters is of such importance that the First Amendment rights of broadcasters to speak out against that royalty should be abridged.

While the MusicFirst petition claims that it neither seeks to abridge the First Amendment rights of broadcasters nor to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, it is hard credit that claim.  After all, the petition goes directly to the heart of the broadcasters ability to speak out on the topic, and seems to want to mandate that broadcasters present the opposing side of the issue, the very purpose of the Fairness Doctrine.  As we’ve written, the Fairness Doctrine was abolished as an unconstitutional abridgment on the broadcaster’s First Amendment rights 20 years ago.  As an outgrowth of this decision, FCC and Court decisions concluded that broadcasters have the right to editorialize on controversial issues, free of any obligation to present opposing viewpoints.  What is it that makes this case different?

The MusicFirst claim is that this case is different in that broadcasters have a self-interest in the topic.  Yet, seemingly, that argument goes too far, as a restriction on broadcasters editorializing on topics in which they have some interest could very well eviscerate the First Amendment rights that they have now had for so many years.  For instance, editorials on tax policy, health insurance, utility rate hikes, and even local bond issues may well have a direct impact on the broadcaster, but no one suggests that these topics are off limits.  Even an editorial supporting or opposing a political candidate, the heart of the editorial right for newspaper publishers and now enjoyed by broadcasters, could be seen as potentially having a financial impact on the broadcaster.  The MusicFirst petition does not address why these issues are somehow different from the performance rights issue, or why artists are entitled to more rights than supporters of positions that may be contrary to the broadcaster’s position on other issues.

Moreover, it was clear even before the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine that broadcasters are not "common carriers," meaning that they do not have to accept every ad or message that anyone wants to put on their airwaves (Common carriers, like telephone companies, have to transmit every message that is given to them).  The broadcaster can serve as an editor or journalist, picking and choosing the message that it wants to convey to its listeners.  The only exception is for Federal political candidates, who have legislated a right of "reasonable access" – legislation that has not been challenged in the Courts in recent memory.  But regardless of the rights of political candidates, this exception is in no way relevant to the MusicFirst Coalition.

The MusicFirst petition also suggests that broadcasters may be improperly characterizing spots that they run against a performance royalty as Public Service Announcements ("PSAs").  Yet that also is not a relevant criticism, as the FCC did away with all of its mandatory program logging requirements back in the 1980s.  Thus, whether broadcasters characterize the announcements are PSAs, or Entertainment or News or anything else has no current significance for regulatory purposes.  Note that the localism rules adopted but not yet effective for TV, and those proposed for radio, would bring back the mandatory classification of broadcast programs and give the PSA classification regulatory significance if and when these proposed rules become effective.  But it is certainly not an objection at this point.

The PSA suggestion is tied into another claim that the radio broadcasters running these announcements may not be meeting their public file issues under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act ("BCRA") which requires that a broadcaster who runs advertising discussing "Federal issues" put information into their public files similar to that which is maintained for political candidates (see our post, here, for details on that requirement).  While we have advised our clients to comply with these rules, especially if anything of value has been provided to the station in connection with the ads (including scripts or pre-produced spots), where the station airs its own editorial message on the issue, the spots do not seem to fall into the BCRA requirements as they are not sponsored programming, which is essentially what those requirements address.

Ignoring other procedural and substantive issues in the petition (including its failure to name names – in most cases omitting information about the stations which supposedly engaged in the complained of conduct and of the artists who were discriminated against), the issue seems to boil down to a First Amendment issue.  No one would suggest that performers be required to allow broadcasters to attend their concerts to speak against the royalty, so why should broadcasters be compelled to give voice to a position to which they are fundamentally opposed?  We will see what the FCC does with the MusicFirst petition in coming months.  Given the recent statements of the proposed new Chair of the FCC at his confirmation hearing that he has no intention of reviving the Fairness Doctrine, the prospects are that this petition will be simply one more publicity volley in a protracted war over the broadcast performance royalty.