defamation in political advertising

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

In the waning days before the mid-term election, we have received many questions about the applicability of the political broadcasting rules to state and local candidates.  In particular, we have seen a number of letters from attorneys representing candidates who are running for state and local offices (everything from Governor to county commissioner or school board representative), who claim that an attack by an opposing candidate is unfounded and that a broadcast station must pull that ad from the air.  Just as is the case with Federal candidates, ads by state candidates cannot be censored by a station.  Thus, except in certain very unusual situations (where the language of the ad would violate some Federal criminal statute, e.g. if it is obscene), a station must air the ad as it was created.  It cannot be rejected because the station disagrees with the content or the tone, and it cannot be pulled even if the opposing candidate believes it to be defamatory.  Because the station cannot censor a candidate’s ad, they have no liability for the content of the ad, i.e. they cannot be held responsible for any defamatory content that it may contain, even if they are on notice of that content.  They cannot censor an ad by a candidate or a candidate’s authorized campaign committee – whether that candidate is running for a Federal, state or local office.

Note that, as we have written many times, this is in contrast to those situations where a candidate complains about an attack ad sponsored by a non-candidate group.  In those cases, the station does have the option of whether or not to run the ad (the no censorship provisions of Section 315 of the Communications Act do not apply).  Thus, if the station is on notice that there is potentially defamatory content in an ad, it must do some investigation of that ad, and make an informed decision about whether or not to allow the ad to continue to run.  If it does not investigate, and continues to run an ad that is defamatory after receiving notice of that fact, in some extreme cases, it could face liability for that defamatory content.


Continue Reading Political Broadcasting Reminder – State and Local Candidates Subject to Lowest Unit Charge, No Censorship and Equal Opportunities Rules