It’s time for our annual April Fools Day warning – be careful with on air pranks prepared especially for the day. This year, with thetragedy caused by the Australian morning show hosts calling the nurse for the Duchess of Cambridge, broadcasters have an example of what can happen when an on-air prank goes wrong. Where harm is caused, lawsuits may follow, and stations could become a target if someone is hurt as a result of a station’s broadcasts. But not only do stations need to worry about potential civil liability in a case like this, the FCC itself has a rule against on-air hoaxes – and, of any day in the year, April 1 is the day that the broadcaster is most at risk. The FCC’s rule against broadcast hoaxes, Section 73.1217, prevents stations from running any information about a "crime or catastrophe" on the air, if the broadcaster (1) knows the information to be false, (2) it is reasonably foreseeable that the broadcast of the material will cause substantial public harm and (3) public harm is in fact caused. Public harm is defined as "direct and actual damage to property or to the health or safety of the general public, or diversion of law enforcement or other public health and safety authorities from their duties." So even if the prank does not cause any injuries, the mere fact that an on-air report was false and it ties up first-responders, is enough to lead to FCC liability.
This rule was adopted in the early 1990s after several incidents that were well-publicized in the broadcast industry, including where the on-air personalities at a station claimed that there was someone at the station who had taken them hostage, and another where a station broadcast bulletins that announced that a local trash dump had exploded like a volcano, and was spewing burning trash around the local neighborhood. In both cases, first responders were notified about the non-existent emergencies, actually responded to the notices that listeners called in, and were prevented from doing their duties responding to real emergencies. In light of these sorts of incidents, the FCC adopted its prohibition against broadcast hoaxes. While the rule has been rarely enforced since, it is on the books and ready for use against any station that ties up police and fire companies when there is no emergency. So FCC fines are possible on top of any damages that may result from a prank-gone-wrong. Have fun, but be careful out there next Monday!