censoring candidate ad

In recent weeks, Facebook has been criticized for adopting a policy of not censoring advertising and other content posted on its platforms by political candidates.  While Facebook apparently will review content whose veracity is challenged when posted by anyone else, it made an exception for posts by political candidates – and has received much heat from many of those candidates, including some who are currently in Congress.  In some cases, these criticisms have suggested that broadcasters have taken a different position and made content-based decisions on candidate ads.  In fact, Congress itself long ago imposed in Section 315(a) of the Communications Act a “no censorship” requirement on broadcasters for ads by federal, state, and local candidates.  Once a candidate is legally qualified and once a station decides to accept advertising for a political race, it cannot reject candidate ads based on their content.  And for Federal candidates, broadcasters must accept those ads once a political campaign has started, under the reasonable access rules that apply only to federal candidates.

In fact, as we wrote here, broadcasters are immune from any legal claims that may arise from the content of over-the-air candidate ads, based on Supreme Court decisions. Since broadcasters cannot censor ads placed by candidates, the Court has ruled, broadcasters cannot be held responsible for the content of those ads.  If a candidate’s ad is defamatory, or if it infringes on someone’s copyright, the aggrieved party has a remedy against the candidate who sponsored the ad, but that party has no remedy against the broadcaster.  (In contrast, when a broadcaster receives an ad from a non-candidate group that is claimed to be false, it can reject the ad based on its content, so it has potential liability if it does not pull the ad once it is aware of its falsity – see our article here for more information about what to do when confronted with issues about the truth of a third-party ad).  This immunity from liability for statements made in candidate ads absolves the broadcaster from having to referee the truth or falsity of political ads which, as is evident in today’s politically fragmented world, may well be perceived differently by different people.  So, even though Facebook is taking the same position in not censoring candidate ads as Congress has required broadcasters to take, should it be held to a different standard? 
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According to Politico, Ted Cruz’ campaign has demanded that TV stations pull certain PAC ads which he claims distort his voting record on immigration issues. This kind of claim from a political candidate about the unfairness of attack ads is common. Here, Cruz’ representatives apparently don’t threaten lawsuits against the stations for running the ads, but suggest that it is a violation of the stations’ FCC obligations to operate in the public interest to continue to run the ads. What is a station to do when such a claim is received?

We have written many times about this issue. Much depends on who is sponsoring the attack ad. If the ad is sponsored by the authorized campaign committee of another candidate, and features the voice or image of the sponsoring candidate, the station cannot do anything. As we wrote in detail here, a station cannot censor a candidate ad. Once it has agreed to sell time to a political candidate or his or her authorized campaign committee, the station must run the ad as delivered by the candidate without edit (with the very limited exception of being able to add a sponsorship identification if one is missing, or when running the ad would constitute a felony, e.g. running a spot that is legally obscene – not just indecent but obscene, meaning that it has no redeeming social significance). Because the station is required to run the ad as delivered by the candidate, the station has no liability for the content of the ad. So, if the candidate being attacked complains, the station can do nothing to edit, censor or pull the attacking candidate’s ad without violating the “no censorship” provisions of Section 315 of the Communications Act. The candidate being attacked has a remedy against the ad’s sponsor, not against the station. Third party ads, however, are different.
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Every election season there is the same refrain from candidates who are attacked in political ads run on broadcast stations – that ad is unfair and the broadcaster who is running it should take it off the air.  Sometime, that request is sent by a lawyer with threats to bring legal actions if the broadcaster does not stop airing the ad.  What is a broadcaster to do when it gets one of these requests to pull a political ad from the air?  While we have written about this issue many times before (see, for instance, our refreshers on the rules with respect to candidate ads, here, and non-candidate, third-party attack ads, here), questions still come up all the time.  Thus, broadcasters need to know the rules so that they don’t pull an ad that they are not allowed to censor under the FCC’s rules, and that they don’t run one for which they could in fact have liability.

The rules are actually fairly simple in concept, and for ads sponsored by candidates themselves, the rules are fairly simple for broadcasters to implement.  It’s very basic – broadcasters can’t censor a candidate ad, so they can’t reject it (or remove it from the air) no matter what its content is.  The FCC has made only one exception to this “no censorship” obligation.  That exception was adopted when Larry Flint was planning to run for Federal elective office and stations feared that he would run sexually explicit campaign ads.  At that time, the FCC adopted a policy that broadcasters need not run an ad that would violate a Federal criminal law (e.g. obscenity).  That is a very narrow decision, as the Courts have even forced the FCC to make stations run without censorship graphic anti-abortion ads with disturbing content, where such ads would not be legally obscene (they might be indecent under FCC rules, and may be disturbing to some, but the airing is not a criminal violation, so the Courts said that they cannot be blocked by a broadcaster).  Because broadcasters have essentially no choice but to run a political ad in the form that the candidate provides it, and cannot reject it based on content, the Supreme Court has recognized an exemption from any broadcaster liability for the content of the ad.  So the candidate who claims that he is libeled or defamed by the political ad needs to seek relief from the candidate who ran the attack ad, not from the station.  But there are some important details that need to be observed to make sure that there is no liability for the broadcaster.
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How can political attack ads get away with taking out-of-context statements of the candidates that they are attacking, and twisting these statements to convey meanings that were never intended by the candidate who first uttered the words? And how can political ads take a single line of an incredibly complex piece of legislation and use that legislation to allege that a candidate has violated some core belief that the candidate espouses on the campaign trail? Do stations have liability for these attack ads, and must they react when the candidate being attacked asks that the ad be pulled? In the fourth of our series of political broadcasting refreshers (following those on lowest unit rates, equal opportunities, and reasonable access), we’ll address the question of the no censorship provision of the rules and what rights stations have to deal with the content of political ads.

Starting with the basics, the FCC rules (stemming from Section 315 of the Communications Act) prohibit broadcasters from censoring the content of advertising that is a “use” by a candidate. Essentially, that means that the broadcaster cannot reject an ad that is sponsored by the candidate or the candidate’s official campaign committee, if that ad has the recognizable voice or image of the candidate somewhere in the course of the ad. No matter how outrageous the statement of the candidate may be, the station cannot refuse to run the ad (with the limited instance of ads that are legally obscene or which otherwise may violate some Federal felony statute). So, even if an ad by a candidate may be totally untrue in claims made about the candidate’s opponent, or even if it could give rise to other civil liability (for instance if it is defamatory or a copyright violation), the station cannot refuse to run the ad.


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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.


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With the Iowa primary approaching, political ads are increasing on the local Iowa TV stations.  While the national press may have been focused on some of the recent Rick Perry ads about the end of "don’t ask, don’t tell" and its connection to the celebration of Christmas in the public schools, there has been an even more controversial ad running on Iowa TV stations – anti-abortion spots being run by Randall Terry, the head of Operation Rescue, who has announced that he is running for the Democratic nomination for President – challenging President Obama for the privilege of running in next year’s election.  Some of the planned ads have graphic depictions of the results of abortions.  These ads are disturbing to some, and many viewers (and many stations) are concerned and upset about their being broadcast – so why are stations running them?  For the most part, it is based on the requirement of Section 315 of the Communications Act that prohibits a station from censoring an ad from a candidate for public office.  Not only that, but court rulings concerning the reasonable access provisions of the Communcations Act prohibit stations from channeling potentially disturbing ads to later night hours – limiting stations to a pre-ad disclaimer warning viewers of the content to come and advising them that the ad is being aired by a candidate and is not subject to station censorship (stations should work with counsel to use language on such a disclaimer that has been approved by the FCC). 

But there are issues that stations need to explore to prevent everyone with the money to cover an ad from claiming to be a candidate for office and being able to air disturbing images on broadcast stations.  Under the law, a person has no censorship rights for their ads (and reasonable access rights for Federal candidates) only if they can show that they are a "legally qualified candidate."  In most cases, the question as to whether someone is legally qualified is relatively easy.  The station looks at whether the person has the requisite qualifications for the office that they are seeking (age, residency, citizenship, not a felon, etc.), and then looks to see whether they have qualified for a place on the ballot for the upcoming election or primary.  In most cases, qualifying for a place on the ballot is a function of filing certain papers with a state or local election authority, in some places after having received a certain number of signatures on a petition supporting that person.  But once the local election authority receives the papers (and does whatever evaluation may be required), a person is legally qualified and entitled to all the FCC political broadcasting rights of a candidate: equal opportunities, no censorship, reasonable access if they are Federal candidates, and lowest unit rates during the limited LUC windows (45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election).  But, for Presidential candidates, especially in caucus states, and for write-in candidates, there are slightly different rules that are applied, as there is no election authority to certify that the requisite papers have been filed for a place on the ballot.  Instead, in these situations, a person claiming to be a candidate must make a "substantial showing" that he or she is a bona fide candidate – that he has been doing all the things that a candidate for election in the caucus would do. What does that mean?


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On May 27, 2010, David Oxenford spoke to the Vermont Association of Broadcasters annual meeting in Montpelier, updating the broadcasters on Washington events of importance, and discussing the FCC’s political broadcasting rules.  A copy of Dave’s PowerPoint on issues of importance to broadcasters will be posted here soon.  Broadcasters may want to refer to Davis Wright Tremaine’s Political Broadcasting Guide for a discussion of the political broadcasting issues that may arise in this election season.  One of the political broadcasting issues that was discussed in detail was the issue of what a station should do when faced with a political ad that comes from a third party, attacking a political candidate, and the candidate tells the station that the ad is untrue and, if it continues to run on the air, it may subject the station to liability.

This issue may be coming up more in the coming months.  The recent Citizens United case signals the potential for more campaign spending by corporations and labor unions. This money would be spent directly by these organizations, not contributed to the candidates, as the case did not loosen the limits on corporate contributions directly to candidate’s campaign committees. Thus, as the ads will not come from candidates, they will not be subject to the “no censorship” rule that applies only to candidate ads. Because the no censorship rules prevent a broadcast station from rejecting a candidate’s ad based on its content, stations are protected from any liability for the content of those candidate ads. In contrast, broadcasters are free to reject ads from corporations, labor unions, or other non-candidate groups. Because they can choose whether or not to accept such ads, they can technically be held liable for the contents of those ads, should the ad be defamatory or otherwise contain legally actionable material. This should not be new to broadcasters as, even before Citizens United, stations were often faced with complaints from candidates about ads from third party interest groups (like the political parties’ campaign committees, or so-called 527 groups like MoveOn.org) that were permitted to advertise even before the recent decision. Most broadcasters want to be able to accept these advocacy ads from non-candidate groups, but they also want to avoid potential liability. What is a station to do when it receives such an ad, or when an ad is already running and a candidate complains about its contents?


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