As the dates for the first Presidential primaries draw near, more and more stories appear in the press about attack ads growing in importance.  These ads are coming both from the candidates themselves trying to draw distinctions with their opponents, and from third party, supposedly independent, groups either attacking or supporting one of the candidates.  See, for instance, the recent story in the Washington Post on the increase in third party ads.  These ads have raised political issues on the campaign trail as to whether negative campaigns work, and as to how independent of the candidates the third party expenditures really are.  They also raise legal issues for broadcasters.  Whenever there are attack ads that are run on a broadcast station, there are complaints from the candidate being attacked about how unfair the criticism is.  Broadcasters have to deal with these complaints, and the sponsor of the ads makes a huge difference in the broadcaster’s responsibilities to check the truth of the statements made.    As we explain in our Political Broadcasting Guide, broadcasters may not censor the content of a candidate ad, and thus are exempt from any liability for the content of that ad.  But attacks contained in third party ads may require the broadcaster to do some investigation into the claims being made to make sure that they avoid legal liabilities.

For ads run by a candidate or his or her authorized committee, the Communications Act forbids a broadcaster (or cable company that chooses to sell time to political candidates) from censoring the candidate’s message.    Because of the no censorship rule, the Courts have ruled that broadcasters are immune from any sort of liability for defamation that may arise from the content of the ad.  Thus, broadcasters cannot reject a candidate’s message based on its content (with the possible exception of cases where that content would violate a criminal law, as opposed to just creating some civil liability), and need not take any action in response to a complaint by an opposing candidate that the ad contains incorrect or distorted information.


Continue Reading As Presidential Races Heat Up, So Do the Attack Ads – Legal Issues For Broadcasters Dealing With Third Party Political Ads

Joining Fred Thompson and Stephen Colbert (see our stories here and here), Presidential candidate Barack Obama appeared briefly on Saturday Night Live last night and delivered that iconic line – "Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night!"  But does his appearance trigger equal opportunities for television stations that aired the program and, if so, would

2007 – the year of the television actor who decides to become a Presidential candidate.  We’ve already written about the issues under the FCC’s political broadcasting rules, particularly the equal opportunity doctrine, with the candidacy of Law and Order’s Fred Thompson, resulting in NBC replacing him on as the on-air District Attorney of New York City.  Now, Comedy Central television host Stephen Colbert has announced his candidacy for the nomination for President – albeit only as a native son in his home state of South Carolina.  While some cynical observers might conclude that the Colbert action is only a bid to get publicity and press for his new book (just think of all the publicity that he’s getting from this blog entry – Stephen, we want our commission on all the books you sell because of the promotion you get here), his candidacy does present a useful illustration of a number of issues that arise for broadcasters and other FCC regulatees subject to the political broadcasting rules – particularly issues that arise when a station on-air employee runs for political office.  Questions that are raised include when a employee becomes a legally qualified candidate, does the candidate’s appearance on a bona fide news interview program exempt the station from equal opportunities obligations, and the amount and kind of time that is due to opposing candidates should they request equal time.

First, the question of a "legally qualified candidate."  This is important as the on-air appearance of a planned candidate does not give rise to equal time until that individual becomes a "legally qualified candidate."  For most elections, the candidate becomes legally qualified when they file the necessary papers to qualify for a place on the ballot for the election in which they plan to run, or if they actively pursue an write-in candidacy for an office for which they are eligible.  Until they are legally qualified, no matter how much they say they are running, their appearances do not give rise to equal opportunities.  One example of this occurred years ago, when Howard Stern was campaigning for Governor of New York on his morning radio program in New York City.  No equal opportunity issues arose as Stern never filed the required papers to qualify for a place on the ballot with the New York Secretary of State.

However, in Presidential elections, in addition to the usual manner of qualification, a candidate who is qualified in 10 states is deemed qualified in all states.  In addition, a Presidential candidate can become "legally qualified" for purposes of the FCC rules merely by making a substantial showing of a bona fide candidacy (e.g. having a campaign headquarters, making speeches, distributing campaign literature,  and issuing press releases).  So, if Mr. Colbert is out in South Carolina holding campaign rallies and distributing literature in support of his candidacy, he could be deemed a legally qualified candidate before filing the necessary papers (though his recent statement on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me that his road to the Presidency ends in South Carolina may undercut the bona fides of his campaign.  Perhaps that admission will be retracted when he appears on Meet the Press tomorrow).  But, for the other Presidential candidates who are running in all states, participating in debates and engaging in other campaign activities, they are probably legally qualified throughout the entire country now, even though the filing of the papers for a place on the New Hampshire ballot, the first primary, are not due until early November.


Continue Reading Stephen Colbert, Equal Opportunities and the Case of the Candidate Host

This past week, former Senator Fred Thompson created a committee to explore a run for the Presidency.  In every article written about the former Senator, like one recently run in the Washington Post, mention is made of his current broadcasting career – his role on Law and Order and as a guest host on Paul Harvey’s radio program.  And all the articles assume that the campaign will result in the termination of these roles, and also present issues about the broadcast and cablecast of reruns of Law and Order episodes and old movies in which he appeared.  In some cases, that is true.  In others, it remains to be seen.  But the potential candidacy does offer a good opportunity for a review of the equal time obligations of broadcasters under FCC rules.

"Equal time" or "equal opportunities" require that broadcast stations give treat candidates for the same political race in an even-handed fashion.  If they sell time to one candidate, they have to give the other candidate equal opportunities to buy the same amount of time in programs reaching roughly the same size audience.  If time is provided to a candidate without charge, and the candidate’s on-air appearance is outside of a news or news interview programs and is not part of on-the-spot coverage of a news event, then the broadcaster must make equal time available to the opposing candidate, if that candidate requests it within 7 days of the use by the first candidate.

However, none of these obligations arise until a candidate is legally qualified – essentially when he or she has filed the necessary papers to obtain a place on the ballot in accordance with the governing law of the jurisdiction in which the election will be held.  In Thompson’s case, as he has not even officially announced that he is running, he is not yet a legally qualified candidate, so for the time being, there is no issue with the continued airing of the programs in which he appears. 


Continue Reading Law and Order: Equal Opportunites – The FCC Implications of Fred Thompson’s Possible Presidential Bid