In a decision just released, the FCC fined a noncommercial FM station $8000 for failing to make its public inspection file available when it was requested. The FCC made clear that past cases where a noncommercial station was given only an admonition for similar violations were no longer good law, finding that the public file was an important part of the station’s obligations to the public and the failure to make it available was a serious violation. This case should serve as a warning to all stations, commercial and noncommercial, that they need to have people at the station at all times who know where the public file is located, and that all visitors who request access to the file need to be given such access.
This case was perhaps a bit more egregious than most, as the visitor who requested access to the fine was known to the station, as the person was employed by a college that had tried unsuccessfully to buy the station. After its request to purchase the station was turned down, the prospective buyer had allegedly filed a number of pleadings at the FCC trying to force the licensee to sell the station. When the person appeared at the station to request access to the public file, the person was first told to return another day. After protesting that was illegal, an official of the College which is the station licensee, arrived at the scene and told the visitor that he had to leave, and could only view the public file after having made a prior appointment with the college’s attorney. When reached by phone, the attorney allegedly told the visitor to leave the premises or he would be arrested. Only when he returned another day, after being initially turned down yet again, was the visitor eventually able to persuade the station employees that refusal to give him access to the file was illegal. When he was finally able to gain access to the file, he stated that he found it to be incomplete.
Obviously, this kind of action should never occur at any station – commercial or noncommercial. The public file is to be made available to visitors immediately upon request. Thus, station employees need to be trained as to where the file is located, and know that anyone can review it, without harassment or questioning as to their motivation for doing so.
The case is also important in the language about the importance of the public file. Most broadcasters would probably say that it is exceedingly rare that anyone ever visits the public file, and when someone does, it is usually either a student in a local broadcast journalism program making the inspection as a class project or it is someone who is not looking for information about the station, but instead already has formed an opinion about station operations and is looking for a "gotcha" – finding a shortcoming that can be reported to the FCC in an attempt to seek some sort of sanctions. Many have complained that the burden of maintaining the public file far outweighs the minimal benefit that those few legitimate visitors to a station may derive from its maintenance.
Because of these perceptions, some have suggested that the public file obligations be reduced or eliminated. However, in recent years, the FCC seems to be moving in the opposite direction, making the requirements more stringent. See, for example, the requirements of FCC Form 355 which has been adopted but not yet become effective for television broadcasters. This case seems to indicate that the Commission is not backing away from its enforcement of public file rules, so broadcasters need to take their obligations seriously.