In a wild series of legal decisions preceding the Democratic Presidential debate in Nevada, a Nevada judge ruled that MSNBC had to include Congressman Dennis Kucinich in its debate, only to be overruled by a decision of the Nevada Supreme Court released less than a hour before the debate was to begin. Notably, the initial decision was not based on FCC rules, but instead on a breach of contract theory, as FCC precedent seems relatively clear that a Presidential debate sponsor need not include all candidates in a debate for the coverage of that debate by a broadcaster or cable operator to be exempt from the equal opportunities rules enforced by the FCC.
The FCC has long recognized that, to promote the coverage of debates on broadcast media, the sponsors need to be able to limit participation in those debates for them to have any meaning. In some races where there are minimal requirements for being placed on a ballot, there can be dozens of candidates for a particular office. If all needed to be included in a broadcast debate, the debate would never be broadcast, and the public would not receive the benefit that on-air coverage would provide. The issue first arose when the equal opportunities rule was adopted, as broadcasters feared that, unless every candidate for a particular office was included in the debate, any broadcaster or cable company carrying the debate would have to give free "equal time" to any candidate that did not participate in the debate. Continue Reading Nevada Court Denies Kucinich Right to Participate in Broadcast Debate – Recognizing FCC’s Exclusive Role to Regulate Equal Opportunities in Political Debates