Corporate political advertising

The Supreme Court issued its landmark opinion in Citizens United v. FEC one year ago today.  That case allowed corporations and labor unions to make independent expenditures for or against political candidates.  An editorial in today’s Washington Post by the President of Citizens United and its lead counsel argues that the hysteria following that decision was unfounded because the amount spent by citizen groups in the last election paled in comparison to the amount spent by the Democratic and Republican parties and by the candidates themselves.  Rather, the authors argue, the primary political speech to come out of the Supreme Court’s decision has been that of independents, and politicians are upset by this because they cannot control the speech of independents.

 As a reminder, the Supreme Court case arose as a result of a film directed against then Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.  Citizens United was a nonprofit corporation that produced the film, and there was debate whether this was a "documentary" or an "electioneering communication," as well as whether distribution via video on demand constituted "public distribution" of the film.  The Supreme Court found that the film was indeed an "electioneering communication" and that VOD was likewise a public distribution of the film.  Thus, Citizens United ran smack up against the FEC prohibition on independent corporate political expenditures.


Continue Reading “Citizens United”: The Supreme Court Decision One Year Later

The Supreme Court Decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, freeing corporations to use their corporate funds to take explicit positions on political campaigns, has been mostly analyzed by broadcast trade publications as a good thing – creating one more class of potential buyers for broadcaster’s advertising time during the political season – which seems to almost be nonstop in these days of intense partisan battles in Washington and in the statehouses throughout the country.  What has not been addressed are the potential legal issues that this "third party" money may pose for broadcasters during the course of political campaigns.  Not only will an influx of money from non-candidate groups require that broadcasters review the contents of  more commercials to determine if the claims that they make are true, but it may also give rise to the return of the Zapple doctrine, one of the few remnants of the Fairness Doctrine never specifically repudiated by the FCC, but one which has not been actually applied in over a quarter of a century.  Public file obligations triggered by these ads also can not be overlooked. 

First, the need for broadcasters to vet the truth of allegations made in political ads sponsored by non-candidate advertisers.  As we have written before(see our post here), the political broadcasting rules enforced by the FCC allow broadcasters to run ads sponsored by the candidates themselves without fear of any liability for the claims made in those ads.  In fact, the Communications Act forbids a station from censoring a candidate ad.  Because the station cannot censor the candidate ad (except in the exceptionally rare situation where the airing of the ad might violate a Federal felony statute), the broadcaster has no liability for the contents of the ad.  So candidates can say whatever they want about each other – they can even lie through their teeth – and the broadcaster need not fear any liability for defamation based on the contents of those ads.  This is not so for ads run by third parties – like PACs, Right to Life groups, labor unions, unincorporated associations like MoveOn.org and, after the Citizens United case, corporations. 


Continue Reading What is the Impact on Broadcasters of Supreme Court Decision that Corporations Can Buy Political Ads? More Money, More Ad Challenges and the Return of the Zapple Doctrine