defamation in political advertising

Here are some of the regulatory developments of the last week of significance to broadcasters, with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • After reviewing comments submitted this summer (we wrote about the rulemaking, here), the FCC will vote at its next

In the last few days, two defamation cases filed against media companies by the Trump campaign have been dismissed – one on the merits and one by agreement of the parties.  This includes the suit filed by the campaign against Northland Television, the licensee of a rural Wisconsin television station.  That station was perhaps the smallest TV station to air an ad by a non-candidate group, Priorities USA, that the Trump campaign alleged was misleadingly edited to assert that the President had labeled the coronavirus a “hoax.”  As we wrote here when that suit was first filed, the campaign claimed that the reference to the hoax was not about the virus itself but was actually a reference to “the Democrats’ exploitation of a pandemic and related characterization of the candidate’s response to the pandemic.”  This suit was vigorously opposed by the station and the sponsor of the ad.  The parties have now agreed to voluntarily dismiss that suit with prejudice, meaning that it cannot be refiled.

Another suit was brought by the campaign against CNN alleging that CNN had libeled the President by publishing on its website an article from one of its contributors who alleged that the campaign had assessed the risks of seeking Russian assistance in the 2020 campaign and had “decided to leave that option on the table.”  The campaign alleged that the statement was false and defamatory – and published with knowledge that it was false.  CNN had countered that the statement was protected as it was presented as opinion, not fact, and moreover it was published without “actual malice.”  As we have written before (see, for instance, our articles here and here), under Supreme Court precedent, a claim about a public figure for defamation can only be sustained if it is both false and published with “actual malice” – meaning that the publisher knew that it was false, or acted with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was false and published it anyway.
Continue Reading Two Trump Defamation Claims Dismissed Including Claim Against TV Station for Political Attack Ad – What is the Relevance for Broadcasters? 

Political “issue advertising” – advertising run by groups like PACs and political parties rather than a candidate’s authorized campaign committees – is a rough and tumble world in which broadcasters can often find themselves in the middle.  We’ve written extensively (here, here and here) about how issue advertising can impose additional public file obligations on broadcasters under FCC policy that has recently been clarified.  Plus, there is beginning to be a body of state law seeking to regulate these ads (see, for instance, our articles here and here).  But where the middle perhaps becomes the most uncomfortable for broadcasters is when they find themselves in a dispute over whether an issue ad that they are asked to broadcast is true.  As we wrote here and here, there are certain common procedures that broadcasters need to follow if they have reason to believe that an ad is false, as running an ad that is in fact false, if the station has reason to believe that it is false (e.g. when they are put on notice that the ad is false by a party being attacked in the ad) could lead to liability for defamation.  While claims brought against broadcasters for running these third-party ads are infrequent, it does happen, as is evident from the recent lawsuit by the Trump campaign against a Wisconsin TV station owned by Northlands Television arguing that a portion of a Priorities USA ad attacking the President for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic was false.  Recently, the TV station filed its response to the Trump suit, and the Motion to Dismiss that was filed is instructive on the issues to consider in any defamation lawsuit.

The Trump claim attacks a Priorities USA ad containing a montage of audio clips of President Trump’s words, including the phrase “coronavirus, this is their new hoax.”  The Trump Campaign claimed that the ad and the way that the clips were edited together misrepresents President Trump’s “hoax” comment by falsely claiming that he stated that the coronavirus is a hoax, when the hoax to which he was referring was “the Democrats’ exploitation of a pandemic and related characterization of the candidate’s response to the pandemic.”  The complaint cited several “fact checkers” who supported the claim that the reference to the hoax was to the Democratic reaction, not the virus itself.
Continue Reading The Law of Defamation and Political Advertising Argued in Trump Suit Against Wisconsin TV Station

Each week, we summarize some of the regulatory and legal actions of the last week significant to broadcasters – both those from the FCC and those taken elsewhere –with links to where you can go to find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.  Here is this week’s list of significant

Last week, the full FCC issued a decision upholding the license renewal grant of a Pacifica-owned radio station in New York. A listener was complaining that the station broadcast favorable statements about an individual who had shot a police officer. The FCC first noted that the listener had not provided details of the statement, but further stated that the FCC is not allowed to censor the content selected by broadcasters to air on their stations. Specifically, the FCC said: “A licensee has broad discretion — based on its right to free speech7 — to choose, in good faith, the programming it believes serves the needs and interests of its community of license.” The FCC is bound by the First Amendment to not judge the subject-matter content of what broadcasters broadcast. Instead, it regulates structurally, in a content-neutral manner through rules like the multiple ownership requirements, to avoid second-guessing the decisions of broadcasters as to what is said on the air.

The interplay between the First Amendment and FCC rules has been the seen in the handling of many issues by the FCC. We’ve written about it in the context of the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine, and when the FCC in 2014 officially abolished the last vestige of that doctrine – the Zapple Doctrine. We’ve also written (here and here) about that in connection with calls for the FCC to ban attack ads which can sometimes make over-the-top claims about political candidates – the truth or falsity of which broadcasters are sometimes required to determine when the attacked candidate challenges those ads and threatens to sue the station that is running them. Why doesn’t the FCC make those determinations? Because we don’t want the government deciding what can and cannot be run on the air. There are of course libel laws that can be used to crack down on false statements – even those in political ads – but standards for finding liability against public officials and other public figures are set high to block those laws from being used to suppress valuable debate on the issues (see our article here ).
Continue Reading License Renewal Shows FCC Does Not Regulate Content – Implications for Calls to Regulate Fake News?

As we move into the final weeks of the election season, and races heat up, there are always issues about attack ads and what a station needs to do when they receive a “take-down” notice from a candidate who is being attacked. We recently wrote about candidate ads, and the “no censorship” provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act. Broadcasters can’t censor a “use” by a political candidate (a candidate ad that features his or her recognizable voice or image and is purchased by his or her authorized campaign committee), and thus the broadcaster is not liable for the content of the candidate’s ad. So no matter what the candidate may say – the broadcaster runs the ad as is. However, ads from third parties (PACs, SuperPACs, labor unions, right to life groups and other advocacy organizations) are different. The “no censorship” provisions of the political rules don’t apply, so broadcasters are free to accept or reject third party ads based on the content of the ads.

This question arises all the time. A station runs a third-party ad, and the politician who is being attacked by the ad will contact the station – or have their lawyer contact the station – demanding that the station pull the ad for its alleged untruthfulness. Sometimes that request has some vague (or sometimes not so vague) threat of a legal action against the station if it continues to run the ad. Unlike candidate ads (where the station cannot censor the ad and thus the station must reject all requests to pull a candidate ad, and can continue to run the ad without liability), the station makes a choice when it runs a third-party ad. Ads that are not run by the candidate’s official campaign committee (or by a political party with explicit authority and coordinated with the candidate), can be rejected based on their content – or for any other reason that the station may have – or for no reason at all.  Because stations make a decision as to whether or not they are going to run a third-party ad, they theoretically have liability if the ad is untrue and the station continues to run the ad when it has been challenged by a candidate or another party attacked in the ad.
Continue Reading What’s a Broadcaster to Do When a Candidate Complains About the Truth of an Attack Ad? – Dealing with Ads from Non-Candidate, Third-Party Organizations

In these last days before the November election, the third-party ads attacking candidates in various political races don’t show any sign of letting up. In fact, press reports indicate that, if anything, the use of these ads is expanding to states not yet receiving them as, because there is so much money in these organizations and so few days left to spend it, they are throwing money into ads in states where there was thought to be little chance of their candidate prevailing. As we warned in our article about third-party political advertising, stations always have a bit of risk in running these ads, as stations have full discretion as to whether or not these ads air. Unlike candidate ads that cannot be censored, third-party ads are aired at the discretion of the station, and if the station airs an ad that is false, and injurious to a candidate, and the station either knows or should have known that the ad was false yet continues to air it (meeting the "actual malice" standard as applied by the Supreme Court to public figures in NY Times v Sullivan), the station theoretically has liability for the content of that ad.

While stations in political seasons often receive threatening letters about third-party ads from representatives of candidates that are attacked – suggesting that the station continuing to run the ad will lose its license or be sued for defamation – such threats rarely result in real penalties or even subsequent legal actions from the complaining parties. But in a complaint just filed in US District Court in the Eastern District of California, Congressman Jeff Denham has filed suit against the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for producing an allegedly defamatory attack ad, and against 5 local television stations that are allegedly running the ad even after Denham’s representatives told the stations that the ad was false and requested that the ad be removed from the air. The Congressman is seeking injunctive relief (meaning that he wants the Court to order that the ad be stopped) and damages as appropriate.


Continue Reading California Congressman Files Suit against TV Stations for Alleged Defamation in Third-Party Advertising

We recently wrote about candidate ads, and the "no censorship" provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act.   Broadcasters can’t censor a "use" by a political candidate (a candidate ad that features his or her recognizable voice or image), and thus the broadcaster is not liable for the content of a candidate’s ad. So no matter what the candidate may say – the broadcaster runs the ad as is.  Ads from third parties (PACs, SuperPACs, labor unions, right to life groups and other advocacy organizations) are, however, different. The “no censorship” provisions of the political rules don’t apply, so broadcasters are free to accept or reject third party ads based on the content of the ads.  Even though broadcasters can reject political ads that come from third-party groups, they rarely do, and we seemingly see just as many outrageous claims about candidates in third party ads as we see in the candidate ads that can’t be censored. Why don’t broadcasters more aggressively decide which ads are truthful and which are not, and reject those ads that are not accurate?

A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times asks that question, citing a political ad running on a television station which had, in a news segment, determined that the contents of the ad were not true. Why was the ad still running on that very station? I spoke to the author, and was quoted as saying that broadcasters don’t want to act as “gatekeepers.”  In more detail, I said that broadcasters don’t want to be in the position of being the arbiter of what ads are "truthful enough" to run and which ones should be rejected.  In the political world, the concept of “truth” is often in the eyes of the beholder. Whether a candidate a “big-spending liberal” or not is not a claim that cannot be factually evaluated. Even in cases where the import of specific legislation is involved, or questions of what a piece of legislation accomplishes or the purposes underlying its adoption can be seen by different people in the political world from very different perspectives, making determinations about “truth” very difficult.  In the eyes of some, a legislative act may be motivated by a desire to respond to constituent desires, but in the eyes of others that same act may be motivated by caving in to special interests or as part of some vast conspiracy to undermine the American way.  In most cases, broadcasters are reluctant to draw lines as to when an ad is truthful enough to run on the air and when it is not – instead leaving the debate over the "truth" to the marketplace of ideas. If someone thinks that an ad is untrue, they can buy their own ad and spell out their position on the issue. (See this article from the Denver Post  complementing TV stations on fact-checking and making their results available for the public to check on the veracity of political ads).  But does that station need to worry about liability for the third-party ad?


Continue Reading Political Broadcasting Refresher Part 5 – Why Don’t TV Stations Pull More SuperPAC Ads? Is There Potential Liability for These Ads?

Political speech has been called the "life-breath of democracy" by the US Supreme Court and receives very strong First Amendment protection.  For that reason, the FCC has said that it will "not attempt to judge the truth or falsity of material broadcast regarding candidates or ballot issues."  That principle is sure to be tested in the wave of negative campaign ads we are likely to see between now and November, many of which will generate "cease and desist" letters from the subjects of those negative ads. Of course, broadcasters and cable operators alike are immune from liability for anything said in the context of a candidate "use" featuring a sponsoring candidate’s recognizable voice or image…the so-called "no censorship" rule.

There is, however, one type of political ad that could create potential liability for the media if allowed to run unchecked:  A third party or PAC attack ad that is defamatory. A defamatory ad is one that exposes the candidate to public hatred, shame, disgrace or ridicule.  Generally, these are ads that allege crime, fraud, dishonest or immoral conduct on the part of the candidate.  Truth is the only absolute defense to a defamatory claim.  Therefore, when defamation is alleged, substantiation should be requested.  Read on for details of a recent case study….


Continue Reading Political Ad Content—When Do You Need to Worry?

Citizens United has led to many third party political ads, which in turn has led to many cease and desist letters to broadcasters and cable operators that they pull those ads. Most concern “false and misleading” statements, which should not be a concern in the political realm. A few concern potential defamation, which may be of concern. Getting substantiation is wise, but in most cases, there is no need to pull the ads in question.
Continue Reading What to Do With Cease and Desist Letters About Political Ads