broadcaster liability for campaign ads

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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As we approach Election Day, the political ads seem to be getting more and more frequent, and often more and more nasty.  With the rise in the number of attack ads, stations are facing more and more demands from candidates who are being attacked in these ads, asking that the ads be pulled from the airwaves because the content is not truthful or otherwise presents a distorted picture of reality.  What do stations do when confronted with these claims?

We have written about this issue several times before (see, for instance, our articles here and here).  In some cases, the stations can do nothing – if the attack is contained in an ad by a candidate or the candidate’s authorized campaign committee.  If a candidate in his or her own ads attacks another candidate, the station cannot pull the ad based on its content.  Ads by candidates and their authorized campaign committees are covered by the Communication Act’s “no censorship” provision, meaning that the station cannot (except in very limited circumstances) pull the ad based on its content (see more on the “no censorship” provision here).  Because the station cannot pull the ad based on its content, the station has no liability if the candidate ad defames their opponent.  The opponent’s only remedy is to sue the candidate who ran the ad.  But what about allegedly false claims made in ads by third parties – like PACs, unions, political parties or other non-candidate groups? 
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With the broadcast and cable news (and the monologs of TV talk show hosts) already dominated by discussions of the 2016 elections, broadcasters thoughts may be turning to that election and the expected flood of money that may come into the political process.  We are, after all, only two months away from the first ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire. But dreams of big political spending should not be distracting broadcasters from thinking about their political broadcasting obligations under FCC rules and the Communications Act, and from making plans for compliance with those rules.  I’ve already conducted one seminar on political broadcasting obligations with the head of the FCC’s Office of Political Broadcasting, several months ago, for the Iowa Broadcasters Association, and we will be doing another, a webcast for about 20 state broadcast associations on December 17 (hosted by the Michigan Broadcasters, see their announcement here). Check with your state broadcast association to see if they are participating in the webcast, as we should be covering many of the political broadcasting legal issues of importance to broadcasters.

Stations in Iowa have been receiving buys from Presidential candidates and PACs and other third-party groups since this past summer, and that spending is sure to increase in these last few weeks before the 2016 start of the primaries and caucuses. What should stations in Iowa and in other states be thinking about now to get ready for the 2016 elections?
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In these last days before the November election, the third-party ads attacking candidates in various political races don’t show any sign of letting up. In fact, press reports indicate that, if anything, the use of these ads is expanding to states not yet receiving them as, because there is so much money in these organizations and so few days left to spend it, they are throwing money into ads in states where there was thought to be little chance of their candidate prevailing. As we warned in our article about third-party political advertising, stations always have a bit of risk in running these ads, as stations have full discretion as to whether or not these ads air. Unlike candidate ads that cannot be censored, third-party ads are aired at the discretion of the station, and if the station airs an ad that is false, and injurious to a candidate, and the station either knows or should have known that the ad was false yet continues to air it (meeting the "actual malice" standard as applied by the Supreme Court to public figures in NY Times v Sullivan), the station theoretically has liability for the content of that ad.

While stations in political seasons often receive threatening letters about third-party ads from representatives of candidates that are attacked – suggesting that the station continuing to run the ad will lose its license or be sued for defamation – such threats rarely result in real penalties or even subsequent legal actions from the complaining parties. But in a complaint just filed in US District Court in the Eastern District of California, Congressman Jeff Denham has filed suit against the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for producing an allegedly defamatory attack ad, and against 5 local television stations that are allegedly running the ad even after Denham’s representatives told the stations that the ad was false and requested that the ad be removed from the air. The Congressman is seeking injunctive relief (meaning that he wants the Court to order that the ad be stopped) and damages as appropriate.


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We recently wrote about candidate ads, and the "no censorship" provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act.   Broadcasters can’t censor a "use" by a political candidate (a candidate ad that features his or her recognizable voice or image), and thus the broadcaster is not liable for the content of a candidate’s ad. So no matter what the candidate may say – the broadcaster runs the ad as is.  Ads from third parties (PACs, SuperPACs, labor unions, right to life groups and other advocacy organizations) are, however, different. The “no censorship” provisions of the political rules don’t apply, so broadcasters are free to accept or reject third party ads based on the content of the ads.  Even though broadcasters can reject political ads that come from third-party groups, they rarely do, and we seemingly see just as many outrageous claims about candidates in third party ads as we see in the candidate ads that can’t be censored. Why don’t broadcasters more aggressively decide which ads are truthful and which are not, and reject those ads that are not accurate?

A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times asks that question, citing a political ad running on a television station which had, in a news segment, determined that the contents of the ad were not true. Why was the ad still running on that very station? I spoke to the author, and was quoted as saying that broadcasters don’t want to act as “gatekeepers.”  In more detail, I said that broadcasters don’t want to be in the position of being the arbiter of what ads are "truthful enough" to run and which ones should be rejected.  In the political world, the concept of “truth” is often in the eyes of the beholder. Whether a candidate a “big-spending liberal” or not is not a claim that cannot be factually evaluated. Even in cases where the import of specific legislation is involved, or questions of what a piece of legislation accomplishes or the purposes underlying its adoption can be seen by different people in the political world from very different perspectives, making determinations about “truth” very difficult.  In the eyes of some, a legislative act may be motivated by a desire to respond to constituent desires, but in the eyes of others that same act may be motivated by caving in to special interests or as part of some vast conspiracy to undermine the American way.  In most cases, broadcasters are reluctant to draw lines as to when an ad is truthful enough to run on the air and when it is not – instead leaving the debate over the "truth" to the marketplace of ideas. If someone thinks that an ad is untrue, they can buy their own ad and spell out their position on the issue. (See this article from the Denver Post  complementing TV stations on fact-checking and making their results available for the public to check on the veracity of political ads).  But does that station need to worry about liability for the third-party ad?


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The Supreme Court Decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, freeing corporations to use their corporate funds to take explicit positions on political campaigns, has been mostly analyzed by broadcast trade publications as a good thing – creating one more class of potential buyers for broadcaster’s advertising time during the political season – which seems to almost be nonstop in these days of intense partisan battles in Washington and in the statehouses throughout the country.  What has not been addressed are the potential legal issues that this "third party" money may pose for broadcasters during the course of political campaigns.  Not only will an influx of money from non-candidate groups require that broadcasters review the contents of  more commercials to determine if the claims that they make are true, but it may also give rise to the return of the Zapple doctrine, one of the few remnants of the Fairness Doctrine never specifically repudiated by the FCC, but one which has not been actually applied in over a quarter of a century.  Public file obligations triggered by these ads also can not be overlooked. 

First, the need for broadcasters to vet the truth of allegations made in political ads sponsored by non-candidate advertisers.  As we have written before(see our post here), the political broadcasting rules enforced by the FCC allow broadcasters to run ads sponsored by the candidates themselves without fear of any liability for the claims made in those ads.  In fact, the Communications Act forbids a station from censoring a candidate ad.  Because the station cannot censor the candidate ad (except in the exceptionally rare situation where the airing of the ad might violate a Federal felony statute), the broadcaster has no liability for the contents of the ad.  So candidates can say whatever they want about each other – they can even lie through their teeth – and the broadcaster need not fear any liability for defamation based on the contents of those ads.  This is not so for ads run by third parties – like PACs, Right to Life groups, labor unions, unincorporated associations like MoveOn.org and, after the Citizens United case, corporations. 


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