Political Broadcasting

Here are some of the regulatory and legal developments of the last week of significance to broadcasters – and a look ahead to the FCC’s consideration of two media modernization items in the coming week.  Links are also provided for you to find more information on how these actions may affect your operations.

  • This week,

Here are some of the FCC regulatory, legal, and congressional actions of the last week—and music licensing action in the coming week—of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The Media Bureau settled investigations into six major radio groups

The FCC this week announced consent decrees with six large radio groups over problems with the political files maintained by these groups.  The consent decrees included very specific compliance plans for each company to ensure that it met all FCC political file obligations in the future.  And it suggested that the penalties were mitigated by the current economic conditions caused by the pandemic – but emphasized the importance to the FCC of the political file obligations and suggested that industry associations take steps to educate all broadcasters about their public file obligations when they run political advertising.  Based on these decisions, we thought that we would republish an updated version of an article that we ran two years ago about those political file obligations so that broadcasters can review their own files to ensure that they have in their files the documents that the FCC wants to see.

Our article from two years ago looked at the political file obligations not too long after the FCC required that all of these documents be made available online, as part of the FCC-hosted online public inspection file. The fact that this file can now be viewed by anyone anywhere across the globe has made the required documents much more visible than when they could be reviewed only by physically visiting the main studio of a broadcast station. Not only can these documents be reviewed by the FCC in Washington, DC, but they can be reviewed by candidates, their agencies, and political ad buyers across the country.  In fact, we understand that some political ad buyers have online “bots” that scan these files routinely to keep track of political ad buying across the country.  Plus, with the license renewal cycle ongoing, the FCC reviews the political file as part of their review of a commercial station’s license renewal application (where licensees need to certify as to whether they have kept their public files complete in a timely fashion).
Continue Reading FCC Enters Consent Decrees with Six Big Radio Groups – Looking at What the FCC’s Political File Rules Require

The question about what to do with the protections offered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act took another turn this week, when Joe Biden suggested that online platforms needed to take responsibility for the content posted on them and correct misinformation in those ads.  That position is seemingly the opposite of the President’s Executive Order about which we wrote here and here, which seemingly suggests that no censorship should be applied against political speech on these platforms – or certainly no censorship against certain kinds of speech that is not applied against speech from all other parties on that platform.  Facebook almost immediately posted this response, defending its position not to censor candidate’s speech and analogizing it to the position that television and radio broadcasters are forced by Congress to take – where by law they are not allowed to refuse to run a political ad from a candidate because of its content and they are shielded from liability because of their inability to censor these candidate ads.  Facebook took the position that, if Congress wants to regulate political speech, it should pass laws to do so, but that Facebook would not itself be a censor.  That position reminded us of an article that we wrote back in January when there were calls to make Facebook stop running political ads comparing the regulatory schemes that apply to political ads on different platforms.  Given its new relevance in light of the sudden prominence of the debate over Section 230, we thought that we would rerun our earlier article.  Here it is – and we note how we seemingly anticipated the current debate in our last paragraph:

[In January], the New York Times ran an article seemingly critical of Facebook for not rejecting ads  from political candidates that contained false statements of fact.  We have already written that this policy of Facebook matches the policy that Congress has imposed on broadcast stations and local cable franchisees who sell time to political candidates – they cannot refuse an ad from a candidate’s authorized campaign committee based on its content – even if it is false or even defamatory (see our posts here and here for more on the FCC’s “no censorship” rule that applies to broadcasting and local cable systems).  As this Times article again raises this issue, we thought that we should again provide a brief recap of the rules that apply to broadcast and local cable political ad sales, and contrast these rules to those that currently apply to online advertising.
Continue Reading Facebook Defends Not Censoring Political Ads – Looking at the Differences In Regulation of Political Speech on Different Communications Platforms

We summarized the provisions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act on Monday, looking at the application of the law that the President has sought to change through the Executive Order released last week.  Today, it’s time to look at what the Executive Order purports to do and what practical effects it might have on media companies, including broadcasters.  As we noted in our first article, the reach of Section 230 is broad enough that any company with an online presence where content is created and posted by someone other than the site owner is protected by Section 230 – so that would include the online properties of almost every media company has.

The Executive Order has four distinct action items directed to different parts of the government.  The first, which has perhaps received the most publicity in the broadcast world, is the President’s direction that the Department of Commerce, acting through its National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA – the Executive Branch office principally responsible for telecommunications policy), file a petition for rulemaking at the FCC.  This petition would ask that the FCC review Section 230 to determine if the protections afforded by the law are really as broad as they have been interpreted by the courts.  The Executive Order suggests that the FCC should review whether the ability granted by the law for an online platform to curate content posted by others – the “Good Samaritan” provisions that we wrote about on Monday – could trigger a loss of protections from civil liability for third-party content if sites exercise the curation rights in a manner that is not deemed to be in “good faith”.  The Executive Order directs this inquiry even though the protections for hosting online content are in a separate subsection of the law from the language granting the ability to curate content, and the protections from liability for third-party content contain no good faith language.  The Order suggests that the FCC should find that there would not be “good faith” if the reasons given for the curation actions were “pretextual,” if there was no notice and right to be heard by the party whose content is curated, and if the curation is contrary to the service’s terms of use.  The Order suggests that the FCC should adopt rules to clarify these issues.
Continue Reading Looking at the President’s Executive Order on Online Media – Part 2, What Real Risk Does It Pose for Media Companies?

When the President issues an Executive Order asking for examination of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which permitted the growth of so many Internet companies, broadcasters and other media companies ask what effect the action may have on their operations.  On an initial reading, the impact of the order is very uncertain, as much of it simply calls on other government agencies to review the actions of online platforms.  But, given its focus on “online platforms” subject to the immunity from liability afforded by Section 230, and given the broad reach of Section 230 protections as interpreted by the Courts to cover any website or web platform that hosts content produced by others, the ultimate implications of any change in policy affecting these protections could be profound.  A change in policy could affect not only the huge online platforms that it appears to target, but even media companies that allow public comments on their stories, contests that call for the posting of content developed by third parties to be judged for purposes of awarding prizes, or the sites of content aggregators who post content developed by others (e.g. podcast hosting platforms).

Today, we will look at what Section 230 is, and the practical implications of the loss of its protections would have for online services.  The implications include the potential for even greater censorship by these platforms of what is being posted online – seemingly the opposite of the intent of the Executive Order triggered by the perceived limitations imposed on tweets of the President and on the social media posts of other conservative commentators.   In a later post, we’ll look at some of the other provisions of the Executive Order, and the actions that it is asks other government agencies (including the FCC and the FTC) to take. 
Continue Reading The President’s Executive Order on Online Media – What Does Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act Provide?

In recent weeks, with so many government officials looking to get messages out about the coronavirus pandemic, we have received many questions about issues that arise when political candidates appear on public service-type announcements – either free PSAs provided by the station or paid spots purchased by some governmental entity.  While such announcements can be run by stations, if a legally qualified candidate personally appears in the spot (their recognizable voice in a radio ad or their voice or picture in a TV ad), stations need to note the advertising purchase in their FCC Online Public Inspection File, as these spots constitute a “use” by a candidate, and they can also give rise to equal opportunities by opposing candidates.

If the use is in a spot on which the candidate appears is a paid-for spot, then any equal time to which opposing candidates are entitled would be on a similar paid-for basis.  This is the same situation as if a commercial advertiser who voices or appears in their own ads decides to run for office (see our article here).  But if the spot is a free PSA, then the appearance of a legally qualified candidate, even if the PSA says nothing about their campaign, can trigger the requirement to give free equal time to any opposing candidates who make any equal opportunities request within seven days.
Continue Reading Reminder:  PSAs Featuring Candidates Can Give Rise to Equal Time and Public File Obligations

Here are some of the FCC regulatory and legal actions of the last week of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The FCC released the agenda for its June 9 Open Meeting announcing that it will consider an

Political “issue advertising” – advertising run by groups like PACs and political parties rather than a candidate’s authorized campaign committees – is a rough and tumble world in which broadcasters can often find themselves in the middle.  We’ve written extensively (here, here and here) about how issue advertising can impose additional public file obligations on broadcasters under FCC policy that has recently been clarified.  Plus, there is beginning to be a body of state law seeking to regulate these ads (see, for instance, our articles here and here).  But where the middle perhaps becomes the most uncomfortable for broadcasters is when they find themselves in a dispute over whether an issue ad that they are asked to broadcast is true.  As we wrote here and here, there are certain common procedures that broadcasters need to follow if they have reason to believe that an ad is false, as running an ad that is in fact false, if the station has reason to believe that it is false (e.g. when they are put on notice that the ad is false by a party being attacked in the ad) could lead to liability for defamation.  While claims brought against broadcasters for running these third-party ads are infrequent, it does happen, as is evident from the recent lawsuit by the Trump campaign against a Wisconsin TV station owned by Northlands Television arguing that a portion of a Priorities USA ad attacking the President for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic was false.  Recently, the TV station filed its response to the Trump suit, and the Motion to Dismiss that was filed is instructive on the issues to consider in any defamation lawsuit.

The Trump claim attacks a Priorities USA ad containing a montage of audio clips of President Trump’s words, including the phrase “coronavirus, this is their new hoax.”  The Trump Campaign claimed that the ad and the way that the clips were edited together misrepresents President Trump’s “hoax” comment by falsely claiming that he stated that the coronavirus is a hoax, when the hoax to which he was referring was “the Democrats’ exploitation of a pandemic and related characterization of the candidate’s response to the pandemic.”  The complaint cited several “fact checkers” who supported the claim that the reference to the hoax was to the Democratic reaction, not the virus itself.
Continue Reading The Law of Defamation and Political Advertising Argued in Trump Suit Against Wisconsin TV Station

Each week, we summarize some of the regulatory and legal actions of the last week significant to broadcasters – both those from the FCC and those taken elsewhere –with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.  Here is this week’s list of significant