The FCC this week issued an Order reconsidering some of the issues addressed in its October 2019 orders (which we summarized here) interpreting its political advertising rules.  Those October interpretations required that broadcasters who run ads addressing federal issues must include in the political file, maintained as part of their online public file, information about all of the candidates and issues discussed in such ads, not just the most prominent issue or candidate it discusses.  The October ruling also required that stations inquire of issue advertisers (or their agencies) about the names of the chief executive officers or members of their boards of directors if the station is provided with only one name, as the rules require the disclosure of all of the officers or directors of such organizations and the FCC assumes that most of these groups have more than one officer or director.  The October rulings also warned stations against the use of acronyms in their public file where such abbreviations could be misleading to the general public when they view the political file.

The reconsideration addressed two aspects of the October ruling.  First, it made clear that the ruling applied only to federal issue ads, not to ads bought by candidates or their authorized campaign committees.  That seemed to be clear from other statements made by the FCC and its staff (see our article here) but the reconsideration makes it explicit.
Continue Reading FCC Clarifies Its Ruling on Political File Obligations for Federal Issue Ads

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

The FCC Equal Time rule (or more properly the "equal opportunities" doctrine) requires that, when a broadcast stations gives one candidate airtime outside of an "exempt program" (essentially news or news interview programs, see our explanation here), it must give the opposing candidate equal time if that opposing candidate requests the time within 7 days of the first candidate’s use.  Cable systems are also subject the requirement for local origination programming, and many have surmised that, faced with the proper case, the FCC would determine that cable networks are also likely to be covered by the doctrine.  While the FCC has extended the concept of an exempt program to cover all sorts of interview format programs, allowing Oprah, The View, Leno and Letterman and the Daily Show to have candidates on the air without the fear of equal time obligations, the rule still theoretically applies to scripted programming.  Yet in this election, we have seen candidates appear on scripted programs repeatedly, seemingly without fear of the equal time obligations.  Early in the election season, cable networks ran Law and Order with Fred Thompson without any equal time claims being made.  All through the election, candidates seem to have made themselves at home on Saturday Night Live, culminating with Senator McCain’s appearances on the SNL programs on Saturday Night and the SNL special run on election eve.  Yet through it all, stations have not seemed reluctant to run these programs, and candidates have not seemed to show any interest in requesting any equal time that may be due to them.  This seems to raise the question as to whether there remains any vitality to the equal opportunities doctrine.

This is not just a case of candidates deciding not to appear on a program that they don’t like because they don’t want to appear in a program with that particular format, as the equal time rules free the candidates from format restrictions.  Thus, had Senator Obama sought equal time for McCain’s appearances on SNL, he would have been entitled to an amount of time equal to the amount of time that McCain appeared on camera, and Obama could have used that time for any purpose that he wanted, including a straight campaign pitch.  He would not have had to appear in an SNL skit just to get that time.


Continue Reading Does McCain on Saturday Night Live Signal the End of Equal Time?

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

As we enter the waning days of this election season, where some candidates get more desperate and the attack ads get sharper, broadcasters are often faced with requests that they pull an ad created by a candidate.  Claims are made that the ad contains untrue claims about an opponent or that the ad contains copyrighted material used without permission.  What is a station to do?  When the ad is an ad purchased by a candidate or their authorized committee, and contains a "use" by the purchasing candidate (a use being a spot where the purchasing candidate’s voice or likeliness appears on the spot) the broadcaster is forbidden from censoring that ad.  Essentially, that means that the candidate can say just about anything in their ad (as long as it does not violate a Federal felony statute), and the FCC’s rules prohibit the broadcaster from refusing to air the ad based on its content.  But, because the station cannot censor the ad, it has no liability for the contents of that ad.  This is in contrast to ads by third parties (e.g. advocacy groups, unions, political parties and others not specifically authorized by the candidate), where the broadcaster theoretically has liability for the content of a political ad (see our post on that subject, here).

Two recent cases illustrate the issue.  In one, according to press reports, in a race for the sole seat in the House of Representatives representing the state of North Dakota, one candidate has claimed that the ads of the other misrepresent the positions of that candidate.  The candidate being attacked has asked that the spots be pulled from the air, while the candidate running the spots has refused to pull them.  Even if requested by the candidate being attacked, and even if the ad is in fact false, broadcasters cannot pull one candidate’s ad if that candidate wants to continue to run it.


Continue Reading Broadcasters Prohibited From Censoring a Candidate’s Ad

Press Reports (such as this one) have stated that the Obama campaign has purchased half-hour blocks of time on at least NBC and CBS to broadcast a political infomercial to be aired at 8 PM Eastern time on October 29.  Some reports indicate that other broadcast and cable networks will also be broadcasting the same program.  Did the networks have to sell him the time?  In fact, they probably did.  Under FCC rules, Federal political candidates have a right of reasonable access to "all classes" of time sold by the station in all dayparts.  This includes a right to program length time, a right that was affirmed by the US Court of Appeals when the networks did not want to sell Jimmy Carter a program length commercial to announce the launch of his reelection bid.  Because of this right, the networks often had to sell Lyndon LaRouche half hour blocks of time to promote his perennial candidacy for President. 

How often do networks (or stations) have to make such time available?  They only have the right to be "reasonable." While what is reasonable has not been defined, the amount of time that will be requested will probably be limited by the cost of such time.  Even were it not limited by cost, the FCC would probably not require that a broadcaster sell such a prime time block more than once or twice during the course of an election – and given the late stage that we are in the current election, it seems unlikely that more than one such request would have to be honored during these last few weeks of the campaign.  Stations do not need to give candidates the exact time that they requested – so the rumored reluctance of Fox to sell this precise time to the Obama campaign because it might conflict with the World Series would probably be reasonable – if they offered him the opportunity to buy a half hour block at some other comparable time.   


Continue Reading Obama Buys A Half Hour of Time on Broadcast Networks – What FCC Legal Issues are Involved?

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

The American Issues Project has recently started running a controversial new television ad attacking Barrack Obama for his connections to former Weather Underground figure William Ayers.  The text of the ad is reported here.  While reportedly some cable outlets (including Fox News) have refused to air the ad, numerous broadcast stations are also wondering what the legal implications of running the ad may be.  We have already seen many other attack ads being run by third-party groups – including political parties, long-standing activist groups like Move On.org, as well as from new organizations like American Issues Project which have seemingly been formed recently.  As the use of such ads will no doubt increase as we get closer to the November election, it is important that broadcasters understand the issues that may arise in connection with such ads under various laws dealing with political broadcasting.  Legal issues that must be considered arise not only under FCC rules, but also potentially in civil courts for liability that may arise from the content of the ad.  Broadcast stations are under no obligation to run ads by third party groups, and stations have a full right to reject those ads based on their content.  This is in contrast to ads by Federal candidates, who have a right of reasonable access to all broadcast stations, and whose ads cannot be censored by the stations.  As a candidate’s ad cannot be censored, the station has no liability for its contents.  In contrast, as the station has the full discretion as to whether or not it will run a third-party ad, it could have liability for defamation or other liabilities that might arise from the content of such ads that it decides to accept and put on the air.  

The standards for proving defamation (libel and slander) of a public figure are high, but if the ad does contain some clearly false statements, the standard could in fact be met.   Basically, to have liability, the station needs to run an ad containing a false statement either knowing that the ad is untrue or with "reckless disregard" for the truthfulness of the statements made.  This is referred to as the "malice standard."  Essentially, once a station is put on notice that the ad may be untrue (usually by a letter from the candidate being attacked, or from their lawyers),  the station needs to do their own fact checking to satisfy themselves that there is a basis for the claims made or, theoretically, the station could itself be subject to liability for defamation if the claims prove to be untrue.  A few years ago, some TV stations in Texas ended up having to pay a candidate because they ran an ad by an attack group that was shown to contain false statements, and the ad was run even after the candidate complained that the statements were untrue.  These determinations are often difficult to make as the ad’s creators usually have hundreds of pages of documentation that they say supports their claims, while the person being attacked usually has documentation to refute the claims.  Thus, the determination as to whether or not to run the ad is a decision that each station needs to make after consultation with their lawyers, and after careful review of the spot and the backing documentation.


Continue Reading Independent Groups Start Running Presidential Attack Ads – What Are the Legal Implications for Broadcasters?

According to press reports, the Obama campaign is contemplating an ad schedule during the upcoming Summer Olympics.  This raises the question of what political broadcasting rules would apply to such a buy.  The Olympics run from August 8 through 24, before the lowest unit rate window for political candidates.  Thus, the Obama campaign is not entitled to lowest unit rates.  Instead, the candidate would only be entitled to a "comparable rate" to what a commercial advertiser in a similar situation would receive.  The campaign would not get frequency discounts that a big Olympics sponsor might get, unless the campaign bought in the same frequency, or other discounts that may apply to larger advertisers.  But the reasonable access provisions of the rules do apply once you have a legally qualified candidate, so it would seem as if at least some political ads would have to be placed in the Olympic programming.  In various political seminars held throughout the country, when this question has been raised, the FCC representatives have consistently said that, given the fact that the Olympics run for such a long period, at least some access must be made available to Federal candidates who are willing to pay the price that the airtime commands.

During the Super Bowl, the Obama campaign bought time, but it was purchased on local stations, not on the network itself (see our post here).  Affiliates of NBC would also have reasonable access issues of their own, were the Obama campaign to approach them directly, or were some local Federal candidate to request time on their stations.  As these stations have less inventory during the Olympics than does the network, the amount of time that would have to be provided would be less (and a candidate need not be given access to the exact time spot that they might request – not everyone can get the coveted spots in certain high profile event’s finals – as long as the access that they are given is reasonable under the circumstances).  But the access rules would apply -so at least some access would have to be given.  Note that in a few states with late primaries for Congress and the Senate, it is possible that there would be Federal candidates entitled to lowest unit rates, even during the Olympics.  State and local candidates, however, have no right of access, so stations would not have to sell them time in the Olympics.


Continue Reading The Politcal Broadcasting Implications of An Olympic Ad Buy

In the hotly contested Democratic Presidential nominating contest, the delegates from Michigan and Florida, which already held Presidential primaries which were labeled as meaningless by the Democratic Party, may become crucial in deciding a winner in the race.  Thus, there have been discussions, particularly in Michigan, of holding another Presidential primary or caucus to award