broadcasters and the first amendment

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

  • In a speech to the Media Institute, FCC Commissioner Starks spoke of the importance of diversity in media ownership and

Everyone knows that a fundamental principle of American democracy is the First Amendment – guaranteeing many freedoms to US citizens including freedom of the press and freedom of speech.  It is one of those concepts that underlies our society, but is often mentioned only in passing, and rarely considered in practice.  Few people – even broadcasters and other media companies – have cause to think about First Amendment principles in their day-to-day operations.  The concepts embodied by the First Amendment are almost a given – except when they are not.

In our politically polarized society, there are more and more arguments made about regulation of speech in various contexts – often made without significant consideration of those First Amendment principles.  On the broadcast side, we have seen Commissioner Carr react to two cases where the FCC has seemingly been called on to regulate the speech (or anticipated speech) of broadcasters.  One case involved a call to deny the sale of a broadcast station allegedly based on a perceived change in the political orientation of its programming from liberal to conservative (see the Carr statement here), and another calling for the FCC to investigate a TV station in Baltimore for allegedly being too focused on investigations into a local government official (see the Carr statement here and an NAB statement also weighing in on the controversy here).  While there may well be issues in each case that go beyond the question of the proposed speech of the broadcasters involved, the issue of whether the FCC can get involved in the regulation of political positions taken by broadcasters is one that is addressed both by the Communications Act and past FCC precedent.
Continue Reading The First Amendment’s Role in Broadcast and Online Regulation

Recently, FCC staff dismissed a request by the organization Free Press asking the FCC to investigate the broadcast of the President’s press conferences on the coronavirus and programs where commentators supported the President’s pronouncements.  In addition to an investigation, the request asked that the FCC require that broadcasters “prominently disclose when information they air is false or scientifically suspect” in relation to these press conferences and other broadcasts.   Free Press suggested that the FCC had the authority to take this action under its broad mandate to regulate in the public interest.  It also cited the FCC’s hoax rule as providing support for such an action.  As we have written before, the hoax rule is designed to prevent broadcasts that pose the risk of imminent harm to the public by potentially tying up first responders and emergency response teams for purported disasters and crimes that are not real.  FCC staff dismissed the Free Press complaint, finding that the FCC is forbidden by Section 326 of the Communications Act from censoring the speech of broadcasters or otherwise abridging their freedom of speech.  These First Amendment principles largely keep the FCC out of content regulation (with the limited exceptions of regulation in areas like indecency, obscenity and sponsorship identification where the message is not being censored, just certain means of expression).

In the Free Press decision, the FCC concluded that, in covering a breaking news story like the pandemic, it would be impossible for a broadcaster to fact check every statement made in a press conference and correct any misstatements in anything approaching real time, as there is so much room for interpretation of any statement made on these ongoing matters.  It would also be impossible for the FCC to police any such mandate without trampling on First Amendment principles, as it would require the FCC to become the arbiter of the truth for many claims made on television.  The FCC declined to take on that role, and noted that the hoax rule is narrowly drawn to avoid these First Amendment issues.  That rule only punishes clearly false broadcasts that could foreseeably tie up first responders or cause substantial public harm.  It does not get the FCC involved in evaluations of the truth of political statements and policy pronouncements.  This is a position that has consistently been taken by the FCC, and one that we often see misstated in connection with demands for the take-down of issue advertising and non-candidate political attack ads.
Continue Reading FCC Denies Application of Hoax Rule to Trump Press Conferences on COVID-19 – Looking at the First Amendment and the Commission’s Regulation of Political Speech

Last week, the full FCC issued a decision upholding the license renewal grant of a Pacifica-owned radio station in New York. A listener was complaining that the station broadcast favorable statements about an individual who had shot a police officer. The FCC first noted that the listener had not provided details of the statement, but further stated that the FCC is not allowed to censor the content selected by broadcasters to air on their stations. Specifically, the FCC said: “A licensee has broad discretion — based on its right to free speech7 — to choose, in good faith, the programming it believes serves the needs and interests of its community of license.” The FCC is bound by the First Amendment to not judge the subject-matter content of what broadcasters broadcast. Instead, it regulates structurally, in a content-neutral manner through rules like the multiple ownership requirements, to avoid second-guessing the decisions of broadcasters as to what is said on the air.

The interplay between the First Amendment and FCC rules has been the seen in the handling of many issues by the FCC. We’ve written about it in the context of the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine, and when the FCC in 2014 officially abolished the last vestige of that doctrine – the Zapple Doctrine. We’ve also written (here and here) about that in connection with calls for the FCC to ban attack ads which can sometimes make over-the-top claims about political candidates – the truth or falsity of which broadcasters are sometimes required to determine when the attacked candidate challenges those ads and threatens to sue the station that is running them. Why doesn’t the FCC make those determinations? Because we don’t want the government deciding what can and cannot be run on the air. There are of course libel laws that can be used to crack down on false statements – even those in political ads – but standards for finding liability against public officials and other public figures are set high to block those laws from being used to suppress valuable debate on the issues (see our article here ).
Continue Reading License Renewal Shows FCC Does Not Regulate Content – Implications for Calls to Regulate Fake News?

Two recent decisions, the most high profile being the renewal of the Fox television stations in the New York City area, demonstrate the analysis that the FCC goes through in deciding if a station has operated in the public interest and if its license deserves to be renewed.  In the Fox case, the focus was on the public service record of the station, and in particular whether the station had adequately addressed the issues of importance to the residents of New Jersey, the state to which one of its TV stations is licensed.  In a second recent case, that of a California radio station, the issue was much more specific – whether the station had promoted illegal drug use, and whether one of the station’s on-air program hosts had been abusive to callers.  In both cases, recognizing the First Amendment concerns posed by second guessing a broadcaster’s programming decisions, the FCC granted the license renewals.

In the Fox case, the issues were broader in nature.  The Fox station WWOR was licensed to New Jersey – in fact receiving a special license renewal when its then-owner, RKO General, was fighting the loss of its other broadcast licenses for issues involving purported lack of candor with the FCC.  The WWOR renewal was granted when Congress passed very specific legislation agreeing to grant the license of any TV station that moved to a state with no VHF television service (which, at that time, was the superior transmission service for TV).  RKO agreed to move WOR from New York City to Secaucus, NJ and received a license renewal as NJ had no VHF stations at that time.  The renewal was granted with the expectation that, as a NJ station, its public interest programming would focus on NJ.  Whether the service provided by current licensee Fox to NJ was the issue that the FCC addressed in the license renewal challenge.
Continue Reading FCC Decisions, Including Fox TV Renewals, Focus on FCC Limits in Assessing Programming Claims in Reviewing License Renewals

Last week, we wrote about how the Fairness Doctrine was applied before it was declared unconstitutional by the FCC in the late 1980s. When we wrote that entry, it seemed as if the whole battle over whether or not it would be reinstated was a tempest in a teapot. Conservative commentators were fretting over the re-imposition, while liberals were complaining that the conservatives were making up issues. But what a difference a week makes.

Perhaps it is the verbal jousting that is going on between the political parties over the influence of Rush Limbaugh that has reignited the talk of the return of the Doctrine, but this week it has surprisingly been back on the front burner  – in force. Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan said on a radio show that the positions taken by talk radio were unfair and unbalanced and that “fairness” shouldn’t be too much to ask (listen to her on-air remarks) . When prompted by the host as to whether there would be Congressional hearings or legislation, the Senator said that it would certainly be something that Congress would consider.


Continue Reading Fairness Doctrine (Part 2) – Will It Return? And What’s Wrong With Fairness?