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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This has been an unusual political year, as the number of political broadcasting legal issues that have arisen seems far smaller than in past election cycles. Perhaps broadcasters are all on top of the issues this year, or maybe the questions that often arise in connection with attack ads simply pale in comparison to some of the non-advertising attacks that take place every day in the news and on other political-themed broadcast and cable programming. But one question that has come up repeatedly in these last few weeks before the election has been one 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 routinely appear in a business’ ads outside of election season, and the candidate simply wants to continue to appear on their business’ ads during the election as well. What is a station to do?

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 a way that is not negative (e.g. it is not in an ad attacking that candidate), 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) that appearance is a “use” by the political candidate. That includes “uses” even 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. So, an appearance by a candidate in a commercial for his or her local business is a “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 that 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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From time to time, questions come up as to whether it is acceptable for broadcast stations to air ads from a political candidate which do not feature the voice or, for TV, the image, of the candidate.  Ads from Federal candidates should almost never be missing the recognizable voice or image, as there are Federal Election Commission rules that specifically put the requirement on the candidate to appear on the spots in the “Stand By Your Ad” disclaimer (“I’m John Smith and I approved this message”).  But sometimes ads from state or local candidates, in states where the Federal requirements have not been extended to local elections by the state legislature, may be missing the voice or image of the candidate.  What are the implications for stations in airing such ads?

The most important implication is in the potential liability of the station for the content of the political ad.  When an ad is a “use” by a candidate, the station cannot censor its content.  It must be run as it is delivered to the station.  Because a station cannot censor the ad, the station has no liability for the contents of the ad.  So if the candidate defames his or her opponent, or violates copyright law, the station cannot be held liable for the content of the ad.  We have written many times about this “no censorship” rule. As we wrote here, that rule (and virtually all of the political rules but for reasonable access) applies to state and local candidates just as it does to Federal candidates. 
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The FCC yesterday issued a Declaratory Ruling at the request of the producers of a new syndicated Crime Watch Daily TV show, a program that will give a daily rundown of crime stories including ongoing court trials from around the nation, declaring that the program would not give rise to equal opportunities claims from political candidates. As the producers expected that political candidates would be featured in the program’s daily coverage of crime news (e.g. sheriffs or district attorneys who may be running for reelection in local elections), they wanted to be sure that competing candidates would not have grounds to request equal time from stations carrying the program – which obviously would severely limit the attractiveness of the program. The FCC looked at the description of the nature of the program – where the producer is making editorial decisions about who will appear on the program based on determinations of newsworthiness in the exercise of their journalistic judgment, not based on an attempt to favor or highlight any political candidate. Based on these representations, the FCC concluded that the show was exempt from the equal opportunities obligations of Section 315(a) of the Communications Act.

We have written about the equal opportunities rules (or what many refer to as “equal time”) many times before (see, for instance, our article here). When a candidate makes a “use” of a broadcast station, opposing candidates are entitled to equal time on the station, if they request that equal time within 7 days. If the first candidate did not pay for that airtime, the second candidate gets the time for free. So, if an on-air employee of a station decides to run for public office, once that employee becomes a legally qualified candidate by filing the necessary paperwork for a place on the ballot or taking the steps to launch a write-in campaign, if the employee stays on the air, opposing candidates can request, and are entitled to, equal time on the station. And these opposing candidates don’t need to deliver the weather report or introduce the next song as the on-air employee may have been doing. Instead, the opposing candidates can use the time to promote their campaign, even if the on-air employee never mentioned his or her candidacy on the air (see our article on on-air employees running for office, here). However, where the candidate appears on the air as the subject of a news report, there is no “use” of the station under FCC rules and policies, and thus no need to give equal time.
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While most of the FCC’s political broadcasting rules have remain unchanged for almost 20 years, each year there are a few new wrinkles that arise, and seemingly a few misconceptions that make the rounds among advertising agencies that work with political candidates.  One such misconception that seems to be circulating this year is that an ad for a state or local political candidate does not need to have their voice or picture to be a "use" under FCC rules.  Only "uses" are entitled to lowest unit rates and subject to the no censorship provisions.  For some reason, agencies in several states have tried to convince broadcasters that, as long as a spot has a sponsorship identification at the end (and, for television, a textual sponsorship identification 4% of screen height for 4 seconds), that spot is a "use."  But that is not correct.  A "use" requires that the recognizable voice or picture of a candidate be in the spot – and that is true even for spots for state and local candidates.  Some advertisers may be confused by the change in Federal laws (now itself almost a decade old) that required that Federal candidates identify themselves in their ads and personally state that they approved the message of the ad,  Perhaps some of the advertisers think that, because the law for Federal candidate is so detailed, and because it does not specifically cover state candidates (though several state laws now have imposed the same obligation on state and local candidates in their states), there is no requirement at all for state and local candidates to appear in their ads.  But they are not correct – for a spot to be a use, a candidate him or herself must have a recognizable voice or image in that ad.

While it is not illegal for a station to run a state or local candidate’s ad when the ad does not have a candidates voice in it, there are important ramifications for the station if the spot is not a "use".  First, without the candidate’s voice or picture, the ad is not entitled to lowest unit rates.  There has been some controversy, not settled by the Federal Election Commission and perhaps subject to interpretations under state election commission rules, about whether a station that charges a candidate lowest unit rates for a spot not entitled to such rates may be making a corporate campaign contribution to that candidate, which is prohibited under Federal law and in most states.  Most importantly for the stations, if the spot does not have the candidates voice or picture in it, the spot is not covered by the ‘No censorship" provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act.  That provision prohibits a station from rejecting a candidate’s ad based on its content.  But, because the station can’t reject the ad based on its content, the station has no liability for the contents of the ad.  Conversely, if the ad does not have the appearance by the candidate in it, then the station is free to reject it based on its content, and thus the station could theoretically have liability for the content of the ad.  As we approach a heated election season where stations don’t want the obligation to check the veracity of every claim made by one candidate about an opposing candidate in an attack ad, stations should be careful to insure that spots purchased by candidates are in fact uses, containing the recognizable voice or picture of the candidate – even for state and local candidates. 


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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.


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