The FCC last week released two decisions (here and here) addressing complaints from public interest groups against several TV stations alleging that the stations had not sufficiently disclosed in their online public files sufficient information about political issue advertising.  These decisions, as detailed below, will end up making life significantly more difficult for broadcasters running ads from non-candidate groups, as they will need to review each issue ad to come up with a list all of the issues of public importance discussed in the ad.  A perhaps unintended result may also be that there will be more disclosure in the public file of the cost of non-candidate political ads supporting or attacking state and local candidates when those ads mention Federal issues – as more and more ads dealing with state elections now do.  Watch as the ramifications of these decisions become clear in the coming months.

Background:  These decisions should not strike regular readers of this blog as particularly new, as these complaints were considered by the FCC’s Media Bureau in early 2017, under the former leadership of the FCC (see our article here).  When the new Republican-controlled Commission took over, the Media Bureau decisions were rescinded, as the new Commission felt that these issues should be considered by the Commissioners rather than at the Bureau level.  The decisions that resulted from this additional review come to much the same result as had the Media Bureau decision, though some of the explanations are more detailed.  In making the decision more detailed, the Commission may have made the acceptance of political ads from non-candidate groups even more troublesome for broadcasters than these ads have been in the past.  What do these rulings provide?
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In recent weeks, Facebook has been criticized for adopting a policy of not censoring advertising and other content posted on its platforms by political candidates.  While Facebook apparently will review content whose veracity is challenged when posted by anyone else, it made an exception for posts by political candidates – and has received much heat from many of those candidates, including some who are currently in Congress.  In some cases, these criticisms have suggested that broadcasters have taken a different position and made content-based decisions on candidate ads.  In fact, Congress itself long ago imposed in Section 315(a) of the Communications Act a “no censorship” requirement on broadcasters for ads by federal, state, and local candidates.  Once a candidate is legally qualified and once a station decides to accept advertising for a political race, it cannot reject candidate ads based on their content.  And for Federal candidates, broadcasters must accept those ads once a political campaign has started, under the reasonable access rules that apply only to federal candidates.

In fact, as we wrote here, broadcasters are immune from any legal claims that may arise from the content of over-the-air candidate ads, based on Supreme Court decisions. Since broadcasters cannot censor ads placed by candidates, the Court has ruled, broadcasters cannot be held responsible for the content of those ads.  If a candidate’s ad is defamatory, or if it infringes on someone’s copyright, the aggrieved party has a remedy against the candidate who sponsored the ad, but that party has no remedy against the broadcaster.  (In contrast, when a broadcaster receives an ad from a non-candidate group that is claimed to be false, it can reject the ad based on its content, so it has potential liability if it does not pull the ad once it is aware of its falsity – see our article here for more information about what to do when confronted with issues about the truth of a third-party ad).  This immunity from liability for statements made in candidate ads absolves the broadcaster from having to referee the truth or falsity of political ads which, as is evident in today’s politically fragmented world, may well be perceived differently by different people.  So, even though Facebook is taking the same position in not censoring candidate ads as Congress has required broadcasters to take, should it be held to a different standard? 
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We recently wrote about some of the challenges for e-cig advertising based on Federal and state actions to restrict the sale of flavored vaping products. Even though advertising for e-cigarettes is not currently illegal at the Federal level (see our articles here and here that discuss the disclaimer that must accompany those ads and the requirement that ads should not make health claims or target children), there are moves to change that position (including the announcement we wrote about last month of an anticipated ban on flavored vaping products). While changes to those rules have not yet been implemented , a recent set of letters from a Congressional committee to the manufacturers of e-cigs suggests that they stop marketing vaping products (or at least report to the committee whether or not they have stopped such advertising) while various government reviews of health issues associated with vaping and the marketing of vaping products are taking place. Among these reviews is a just-announced proceeding by the Federal Trade Commission to look at the marketing practices of e-cig companies. The detailed questions sent to the e-cig companies indicate that the FTC intends a very thorough review of all aspects of these marketing programs.

These Federal actions have been combined with announcements in many states looking toward significant regulation of the vaping industry. As we wrote last month, Michigan’s governor has announced a ban on the sale of flavored e-cig products. The text of the order implementing that announcement has now been released. Other states are following suit, with a ban in Massachusetts reportedly in place, and actions in Washington State and Ohio being considered. Many municipalities are also looking at similar restrictions.
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While next year’s federal elections are already receiving most of the publicity, I’ve been getting a surprising number of calls about elections this November. While most broadcast stations don’t think about the FCC’s political broadcasting rules in odd numbered years, they should – particularly in connection with state and local political offices.  There are elections for governor in November in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi, and all sorts of state and local elections in different parts of the country. As we have written before, most of the political rules apply to these state and local electoral races so broadcasters need to be paying attention.

Whether the race is for governor or much more locally focused, like elections for state legislatures, school boards or town councils, stations need to be prepared. Candidates for state and local elections are entitled to virtually all of the political broadcasting rights of Federal candidates – with one exception, the right of reasonable access which is reserved solely for Federal candidates. That means that only Federal candidates have the right to demand access to all classes and dayparts of advertising time that a broadcast station has to sell. As we wrote in our summary of reasonable access, here, that does not mean that Federal candidates can demand as much time as they want, only that stations must sell them a reasonable amount of advertising during the various classes of advertising time sold on the station. For state and local candidates, on the other hand, stations don’t need to sell the candidates any advertising time at all. But, if they do, the other political rules apply
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We’ve written many times about the legal concerns about advertising for various vices – including e-cigs (see, for instance, our article here) and CBD (see for instance our articles here and here). The issues with these products never seem to go away, and in recent days, they have become even more pronounced. On e-cigs and vaping products, we have advised that ads need to avoid health claims, must contain an FDA-required warning that they contain nicotine and can be addictive (see our articles here and here), and that they should not be aired during programming targeting children (see our article here). We recently also added a warning that action might be coming against flavored vaping products. This week, the headlines are full of news announcing a new Federal ban on flavored vaping products that may go into effect in the next few months, following a state ban that was recently instituted in Michigan. On CBD, in addition to concerns about laws that still make the product illegal in many states, we’ve discussed concerns about whether the product is legally produced from hemp (see our article here), and highlighted prohibitions on health claims (see our article here) and ads directed to an underage audience. This week, we saw another set of warnings from the FTC targeting advertisers making specific health claims about their products. These actions should serve as a warning to broadcasters and other media companies to proceed very carefully, only after receiving legal advice, before jumping into advertising for these products.

On the vaping front, Michigan recently became the first state to totally ban flavored e-cigarettes – including mint and menthol flavored vaping products. See the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services “Finding of Emergency” here, and the Governor’s announcement here. While there was some indication that the vaping industry might fight that ban, with the news yesterday that the Trump administration plans to ban these products on a Federal level (see this statement from the FDA indicating that it will soon announce specific rules for the Federal ban on these products), broadcasters need to be concerned about running advertising for products that may be considered illegal. With the recent rash of other serious health consequences of vaping, it is quite possible that further regulation of these products will follow, and so may lawsuits from the vaping industry. In the interim, the FDA notes that it will be running advertising to combat underage vaping and to warn about the potential health issues, so look for those advertising opportunities.
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In many states, we are in election season for local offices, which has resulted in a question that has come up repeatedly in the last few weeks about local candidates – usually running for state or municipal offices – who appear in advertisements for local businesses that they own or manage. Often times, these individuals will appear in their business’ ads outside of election season, and don’t want to stop appearing in those ads during their bid for elective office. We wrote about this question in an article published two years ago and again a bit more than a year ago.  But, as the question continues to come up, it is worth revisiting the subject. What is a station to do when a local advertiser decides to run for office?

While we have many times written about what happens when a broadcast station’s on-air employee runs for office (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here), we have addressed the question less often about the advertiser who is also a candidate. If a candidate’s recognizable voice or, for TV, image appears on a broadcast station in any “positive” way, whether it is political in nature or not, it is considered a “use” by the political candidate.  What is a “positive” use?  Basically, it is any appearance that is not negative to the candidate (i.e., it is not in an ad attacking that candidate).  To be a positive “use” by the advertising candidate, the appearance must also be outside of an exempt program (in other words, outside of a news or news interview program which, as we wrote here, is a very broad category of programming exempt from the equal time rules).. “Uses” can arise well outside the political sphere, so Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were pulled from TV when he was running for office, as were any re-runs of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice featuring Donald Trump.  An appearance by a candidate in a commercial for his or her local business is similarly a positive “use” which needs to be included in a station’s political file (providing all the information about the sponsor, schedule and price of the ad, as you would for any pure political buy). But that does not necessarily mean that a station needs to pull the ad from the air.
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CBD has been a hot topic for media companies – trying to decipher what products are legal and which can be advertised. We have written a number of articles on CBD, hemp and other cannabis advertising issues (see, for instance, our articles here, here, and here). Each of these articles highlights the confusion about the current state of the law on CBD, not just in the media, but across all industries. Some recent government correspondence indicates that clarity on the legality of CBD production may be coming soon, but that any resolution about the health claims that can be made about CBD products and their use in food and drugs may still be years away. These letters also show that the advertising community risks government concern if advertising does not recognize the continuing regulatory concerns about CBD health claims and its use in food and drugs.

The correspondence that most directly addresses marketing issues is this Warning Letter from the FDA to a CBD distributor in which the FDA warned the distributor about health claims made about its products in the promotional materials that it was distributing online. Many seemingly generic claims about the benefits of CBD were singled out as a source of concern, along with many claims that were more specific citations to studies suggesting that CBD was helpful in treating defined ailments. From the tone of the FDA letter, claims about third-party findings on specific health benefits should not be included in promotional materials. Nor should the more generic claims like these cited in the letter as being problematic:

  • “CBD oil is becoming a popular, all-natural source of relief used to address the symptoms of many common conditions, such as chronic pain, anxiety . . . [and] ADHD.”
  • “The Benefits of CBD Oil for ADHD . . . It’s not unusual for people with ADHD to feel anxious and on the edge. CBD is known for its anti-anxiety properties that can promote relaxation and stress relief. It can also help to restore focus and ability to concentrate on specific tasks, as well as reduce impulsivity.”
  • “CBD can successfully reduce anxiety symptoms, both alone and in conjunction with other treatments.”
  • “CBD oil can be used in a variety of ways to help with chronic anxiety.”
  • “Some of the most common reasons to use CBD oil include . . . Chronic pain . . . Mental conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD . . ..”
  • “CBD . . . can be used to help manage a wide range of health conditions, such as . . . Anxiety and depression . . . Chronic or arthritic pain . . ..”
  • “Some of the most common reasons to use CBD oil include . . . Chronic pain . . . Mental conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD . . ..”

Another issue that arises in advertising CBD and other hemp products is whether any of these products are being legally produced. An interpretative opinion from the USDA sets out under what circumstances the production of CBD products is currently legal in the US. This opinion sets out that the only legal hemp products being produced at this point are the limited products being produced for research purposes under the 2014 Farm Bill. As we wrote here, the government has previously stated that it did not seem to think that commercial production was authorized under the 2014 Bill, yet some growers operating under these pilot plans seem to be relatively big businesses. Otherwise, hemp products including CBD can only be grown pursuant to provisions of the 2018 Farm Act with a USDA license or one issued by a state or tribal nation under a plan approved by the USDA – and the USDA has not yet approved any such plans nor even adopted the framework under which they will evaluate such plans. According to the USDA website, the USDA intends to have regulations in effect by Fall 2019 to accommodate the 2020 planting season. If a state or tribal nation submits a plan before that time, USDA will not review or approve the plan until the regulations are implemented. Thus, there appears to be a very limited universe of hemp products that are currently legally produced and thus can be used for making hemp-derived CBD.
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In the last few days, much has been written about the decision of a national radio broadcaster to prohibit the host of a country music radio program from airing an interview of a Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on a nationally syndicated program. This decision has prompted many questions as to when the FCC’s equal opportunities (sometimes referred to as “equal time”) rules apply to appearances of a candidate on a broadcast station.

Two years ago, we wrote about a Declaratory Ruling issued by the FCC’s Media Bureau which addressed many of these issues. In that decision, the FCC determined that a syndicated television program, “Matter of Fact with Fernando Espuelas,” was an “exempt program” which would not give rise to equal opportunities. The FCC rules state that bona fide news interview programs are exempt programs, meaning that appearances on the program by legally qualified candidates for public office would not give rise to equal opportunities for other candidates to get free time on the stations which aired the program. In reviewing that request for declaratory ruling, or in considering whether any program would be exempt, what does the FCC consider?
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Last week, a federal District Court ruled that the US Department of Health and Human Services did not have the authority to require that drug manufacturers include pricing information on their television commercialsWe wrote about that requirement, here – a requirement that was supposed to go into effect this summer.  However, the District