content of political ads

The question about what to do with the protections offered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act took another turn this week, when Joe Biden suggested that online platforms needed to take responsibility for the content posted on them and correct misinformation in those ads.  That position is seemingly the opposite of the President’s Executive Order about which we wrote here and here, which seemingly suggests that no censorship should be applied against political speech on these platforms – or certainly no censorship against certain kinds of speech that is not applied against speech from all other parties on that platform.  Facebook almost immediately posted this response, defending its position not to censor candidate’s speech and analogizing it to the position that television and radio broadcasters are forced by Congress to take – where by law they are not allowed to refuse to run a political ad from a candidate because of its content and they are shielded from liability because of their inability to censor these candidate ads.  Facebook took the position that, if Congress wants to regulate political speech, it should pass laws to do so, but that Facebook would not itself be a censor.  That position reminded us of an article that we wrote back in January when there were calls to make Facebook stop running political ads comparing the regulatory schemes that apply to political ads on different platforms.  Given its new relevance in light of the sudden prominence of the debate over Section 230, we thought that we would rerun our earlier article.  Here it is – and we note how we seemingly anticipated the current debate in our last paragraph:

[In January], the New York Times ran an article seemingly critical of Facebook for not rejecting ads  from political candidates that contained false statements of fact.  We have already written that this policy of Facebook matches the policy that Congress has imposed on broadcast stations and local cable franchisees who sell time to political candidates – they cannot refuse an ad from a candidate’s authorized campaign committee based on its content – even if it is false or even defamatory (see our posts here and here for more on the FCC’s “no censorship” rule that applies to broadcasting and local cable systems).  As this Times article again raises this issue, we thought that we should again provide a brief recap of the rules that apply to broadcast and local cable political ad sales, and contrast these rules to those that currently apply to online advertising.
Continue Reading Facebook Defends Not Censoring Political Ads – Looking at the Differences In Regulation of Political Speech on Different Communications Platforms

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. 
Continue Reading Political Candidate Ads Without the Candidate’s Voice or Image – What is a Station to Do?

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.


Continue Reading Political Broadcasting Refresher Part 4 – No Censorship – How Can Candidates Get Away With Those Attack Ads?