In an 11th hour decision released at about 5 PM on the Friday before the Super Bowl,the FCC decided that TV station WMAQ-TV in Chicago was justified in denying Randall Terry’s request to buy advertising time in the Super Bowl.  As we’ve written before, Mr. Terry is claiming that he is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, and as such has a right of reasonable access to broadcast stations, meaning that they must sell him advertising time.  If he had such rights, the stations could not censor the content of the ads that the candidate decided to run (see our article here about the Communications Act’s no censorship rule).  As Mr. Terry has promised to run some very graphic antiabortion ads featuring images of aborted fetuses, many stations were reluctant to run the ads, especially in the Super Bowl when families will be watching the big game.  The FCC decided that WMAQ-TV acted reasonably in denying Mr. Terry time in the Super Bowl for two reasons: (1) he had failed to make a substantial showing of his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in Illinois, and (2) even if he had, he had no right to demand that his ads be placed in the Super Bowl.  Each of these prongs of the decision clarifies some issues in the law of political broadcasting that had been long-debated, but the first part of the decision leaves questions – important questions to which many stations want answers.

The first prong of the decision concluded that WMAQ-TV was justified in determining that Mr. Terry was not a bona fide candidate for the Democratic nomination for President in Illinois as he was not on the ballot there, and had not made a "substantial showing" that he was otherwise a candidate in the state (see our discussion of the requirements to be a legally qualified candidate, here).  The FCC found that the station did not need to be a private investigator and ferret out every instance of campaign activity that Mr. Terry had engaged in within the state to determine if his activity was substantial.  Instead, the station could rely on the information that Terry presented to it when he made his request.  That information essentially amounted to the fact that he had made appearances in two small towns in the state, and had some campaign literature (though there was no evidence that it was ever distributed in Illinois).  Based on those facts, the Commission denied the request – concluding that he had not engaged in campaign activities throughout a substantial portion of the state, as required by prior FCC precedent.  While this may answer the question in this case (and helped to clarify the law as to the showing that write-in candidates need to make before they can demand reasonable access to broadcast stations), it leaves several questions unanswered for stations that have or may receive Mr. Terry’s request for airtime in other states where Mr. Terry is on the ballot.


Continue Reading FCC Decides That Randall Terry Not Entitled to Run Graphic Anti-Abortion TV Ads in the Super Bowl For His “Presidential Campaign” – But Questions Remain

Broadcast stations must charge political candidates the lowest unit rate that they charge any commercial advertiser for a comparable advertising spot during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Broadcasters need to remember that this applies to state and local races, as well as Federal campaigns, so those

With the President declaring his candidacy for reelection in 2012, broadcasters thoughts may be turning to that election and the expected flood of money that may come into the political process.  But visions of next year’s elections should not be distracting broadcasters from their current political broadcasting obligations.  I’ve received many calls this year about whether broadcasters need to provide lowest unit rates to candidates in the races that are going on in 2011 – including many municipal elections and some special elections to fill various political posts.  As we have written before, if a station decides to sell time to a political candidate in a local race, that sale must be at the lowest unit charge for the class of time sold during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before the general election.  While state and local candidates need not be afforded the "reasonable access" that applies to Federal candidates, that merely means that stations do not need to sell these candidates any advertising time at all, or that stations may limit the purchase by state and local candidates to only the dayparts during which the station has more inventory.  But once the time is sold to one candidate in a race, most other political rules – including lowest unit charges, equal opportunities and the no censorship rule, all apply to the local candidate’s spots.

With the President now filing to become a candidate, and many Republican candidates likely to be filing soon, what obligations are imposed on stations?  For the most part, there is no effect on the rates to be charged to candidates or their campaign committees – those rates only become effective 45 days before the primaries – so the lowest unit charges for Presidential campaigns likely will not kick in until very late this year, or early next, for the early Presidential primaries and caucuses in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. But, as candidates become legally qualified, there will be reasonable access and equal opportunities obligations that will arise.  Candidates for President can request reasonable access to all classes and dayparts – even outside the 45 and 60 day windows before a primary and general election, respectively.  In the case of a Presidential campaign, a candidate becomes legally qualified in all states once he has become legally qualified in 10 states. There may be few Democrats who are to likely to challenge the President, so equal opportunities will most likely be a major issue only on the Republican side.  And, as we’ve written before, the FCC has determined that most interview programs where the content is under station control – even those that have little news value on the normal day – are deemed "news interview programs" exempt from equal time rules.  Thus, equal time is normally only an issue in making sure that all candidates have equal opportunities to buy spot time, and in those rare circumstances where a candidate appears on a purely entertainment program (e.g. as a character on a scripted TV show) or where the candidate is themselves a host of a broadcast program – and usually stations ensure that the candidates are long gone from hosting programs once they formally declare that they are running for a political office


Continue Reading President Obama Declares Candidacy – What Political Broadcasting Rules Should Broadcasters Be Considering Now?

In the waning days before the mid-term election, we have received many questions about the applicability of the political broadcasting rules to state and local candidates.  In particular, we have seen a number of letters from attorneys representing candidates who are running for state and local offices (everything from Governor to county commissioner or school board representative), who claim that an attack by an opposing candidate is unfounded and that a broadcast station must pull that ad from the air.  Just as is the case with Federal candidates, ads by state candidates cannot be censored by a station.  Thus, except in certain very unusual situations (where the language of the ad would violate some Federal criminal statute, e.g. if it is obscene), a station must air the ad as it was created.  It cannot be rejected because the station disagrees with the content or the tone, and it cannot be pulled even if the opposing candidate believes it to be defamatory.  Because the station cannot censor a candidate’s ad, they have no liability for the content of the ad, i.e. they cannot be held responsible for any defamatory content that it may contain, even if they are on notice of that content.  They cannot censor an ad by a candidate or a candidate’s authorized campaign committee – whether that candidate is running for a Federal, state or local office.

Note that, as we have written many times, this is in contrast to those situations where a candidate complains about an attack ad sponsored by a non-candidate group.  In those cases, the station does have the option of whether or not to run the ad (the no censorship provisions of Section 315 of the Communications Act do not apply).  Thus, if the station is on notice that there is potentially defamatory content in an ad, it must do some investigation of that ad, and make an informed decision about whether or not to allow the ad to continue to run.  If it does not investigate, and continues to run an ad that is defamatory after receiving notice of that fact, in some extreme cases, it could face liability for that defamatory content.


Continue Reading Political Broadcasting Reminder – State and Local Candidates Subject to Lowest Unit Charge, No Censorship and Equal Opportunities Rules

The 2010 political broadcasting season is off to a fast start, with a controversy already erupting in connection with the Illinois Senate race to fill the seat once held by President Obama.  Illinois has one of the first primaries in the nation for the 2010 election, to be held on February 2, 2010.  In that race, Andy Martin, one of the Republican candidates for the open Senate seat that will be vacated by Senator Burris, is reportedly running ads on radio in Illinois stating that the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Mark Kirk, is rumored to be gay, and has many gay staffers, and asking that Kirk clear up questions about his sexuality.  Many stations in Illinois have expressed concern about running an ad from a fringe candidate in the race that makes such a controversial allegation.  Stations that are concerned need to remember that an ad by a legally qualified candidate cannot be censored once a station has agreed to sell time to the candidate.  As we’ve written previously, if the attacking candidate is legally qualified for a place on the primary ballot, as news reports indicate that he is in the Illinois case, then stations cannot censor that ad – and have to run it with these attacks on the front-running candidate, even if the stations do not like the message. 

The Chicago Tribune story about this controversy quotes me as stating that stations can censor a candidate ad if the ad violates a Federal felony statute.  That caveat was added to FCC policy when it was feared that Larry Flint was going to run for Federal political office and run campaign ads that might test the limits of obscenity laws.  More importantly, however, stations should recognize that, because they cannot censor an ad by a candidate’s authorized campaign, the station itself has no liability for the contents of that ad.  The candidate may be sued for libel or defamation (which has occurred in other cases), but the station itself should be immune from liability as it has no choice but to run the ad or violate Federal election laws.  Stations do, however, have the ability to put disclaimers on ads – stating that they are political messages that cannot be censored and do not necessarily reflect the views of the station, but these disclaimers should be applied to all candidates for the same race equally.


Continue Reading Early Flap in Illinois Senate Race Reminds Broadcasters that They Cannot Censor Candidate Ad

On November 10, Davis Wright Tremaine’s David Oxenford and Bobby Baker, the head of the FCC’s Office of Political Broadcasting, conducted a webinar on the FCC’s political broadcasting rules and policies.  The webinar originated from Lansing, Michigan, before an audience of Michigan Broadcasters, and was webcast to broadcasters in 13 other states.  Topics discussed included reasonable

In two races for the US Senate, candidates have filed defamation lawsuits against their opponents charging that attack ads go over the line from political argument to actionable falsehoods.  However these suits ultimately play out, they demonstrate the premise that we’ve written about before, that broadcast stations are prohibited by FCC rules and the Communications Act from censoring the content of a candidate’s ad, and because they cannot censor the content of a candidate’s ad (or refuse to run a candidate’s ad because of the content of that ad), stations are immune from liability that might otherwise arise from that content.  But the candidates being attacked can sue their opponents for the contents of those ads, and that is just what has happened in the North Carolina and Minnesota Senate races.

In North Carolina, according to press reports, Democratic candidate Kay Hagan has filed suit against the campaign of Elizabeth Dole for a commercial that accused Hagan of being associated with a group called Godless Americans – an ad ending with a woman’s voice that some interpreted as being that of Hagan (when it was in fact not) saying "there is no God."  In Minnesota, Senator Norm Coleman has reportedly filed a lawsuit against Al Franken’s campaign claiming that Franken campaign ads improperly claimed that Coleman was rated one of the four most corrupt Senators and that he was getting an improperly financed apartment in Washington DC. 


Continue Reading Senate Candidates File Lawsuits For Defamation in TV Commercials – But Not Against the TV Stations

Each election season brings new issues for broadcasters. In recent years, broadcasters are more and more frequently dealing with requests for political uses of the a station’s website. For the most part, unlike a broadcast station that is subject to the full panoply of the FCC’s political rules, those rules largely don’t apply to station websites (some FEC rules, will not be discussed here, may apply to websites). About the only informal pronouncement to come out of the FCC on the use of a station website is that, if the website is sold to one candidate as part of a package with broadcast spot time, then the same offer should be made to competitors of the candidate. This is not an application of FCC’s the rules to the Internet, but instead just a restatement of a long-standing FCC policy that, if one advertiser gets extra benefits that come with the purchase of ad time, and those benefits would be of value to a candidate, they should also be offered to the candidate, and that equal opportunities demands that all candidates for the same office be treated alike.

While the freedom from reasonable access, lowest unit rates, and equal time may seem like a boon to broadcasters, that freedom comes with a price. For instance, the “no censorship rule,” which forbids a station from editing the content of a candidate’s spot or rejecting that spot based on its content (unless that spot violates a Federal felony statute), does not apply to Internet spots. Because candidate spots broadcast on a station cannot be censored, the station has no liability for the content of those spots. So the station is immune for libel and slander, or copyright violations, or other sources of potential civil liability for the content of a candidate’s broadcast spots. But since these spots can be censored or rejected on the station’s website, a station could have theoretical liability for the content of the Internet spot even though the broadcaster could run the exact same spot on the air without fear of any liability. For instance, just recently, according to the Los Angeles Times, CBS asked You Tube to remove a McCain spot attacking Senator Obama as the spot used a copyrighted clip of a Katie Couric commentary without permission. Had that spot been running on a broadcast station, the station would have been forbidden from pulling the spot (and would have no liability for the copyright violation).


Continue Reading Political Advertising Rules for Station Websites – Opportunites and Pitfalls