FCC political advertising rules

To help broadcasters sort out the confusing rules about political advertising, we have updated our Political Broadcasting Guide for Broadcasters (note that the URL for the updated version has not changed from prior versions, so your bookmarks should continue to work). The revised guide is much the same as the one that we published two years ago, formatted as Questions and Answers to cover many of the issues that come up for broadcasters in a political season. This guide is only that – a guide to the issues and not a definitive answer to any of the very fact-dependent legal issues that arise in election season. But we hope that this guide at least provides a starting point for the analysis of issues, so that station employees have a background to discuss these matters with ad buyers and their own attorneys.

In looking at the Guide that we prepared two years ago, really not much has changed. But there are some specific updates that should be noted. For instance, sponsorship identification seems to be a hot issue in the last two years. We wrote here about the $540,000 fine paid as part of a consent decree when a Cumulus radio station did not fully identify the sponsor of advertising on a controversial issue of public importance. We have also written here and here about issues that are currently pending at the FCC about the proper sponsorship identification tag that belongs on an ad paid for by a PAC that is funded by one individual. This is an issue to which stations should be alert. The online public file for radio is mentioned, as this will affect how radio broadcasters maintain their political file starting at some point later this year (see our article here about the online public file requirements for radio broadcasters). Also, we note the adoption by many stations of programmatic selling, and suggest that stations need to carefully review how these sales platforms may impact lowest unit rate issues. We have made some other clarifications and revisions as well.
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While most of the FCC’s political broadcasting rules have remain unchanged for almost 20 years, each year there are a few new wrinkles that arise, and seemingly a few misconceptions that make the rounds among advertising agencies that work with political candidates.  One such misconception that seems to be circulating this year is that an ad for a state or local political candidate does not need to have their voice or picture to be a "use" under FCC rules.  Only "uses" are entitled to lowest unit rates and subject to the no censorship provisions.  For some reason, agencies in several states have tried to convince broadcasters that, as long as a spot has a sponsorship identification at the end (and, for television, a textual sponsorship identification 4% of screen height for 4 seconds), that spot is a "use."  But that is not correct.  A "use" requires that the recognizable voice or picture of a candidate be in the spot – and that is true even for spots for state and local candidates.  Some advertisers may be confused by the change in Federal laws (now itself almost a decade old) that required that Federal candidates identify themselves in their ads and personally state that they approved the message of the ad,  Perhaps some of the advertisers think that, because the law for Federal candidate is so detailed, and because it does not specifically cover state candidates (though several state laws now have imposed the same obligation on state and local candidates in their states), there is no requirement at all for state and local candidates to appear in their ads.  But they are not correct – for a spot to be a use, a candidate him or herself must have a recognizable voice or image in that ad.

While it is not illegal for a station to run a state or local candidate’s ad when the ad does not have a candidates voice in it, there are important ramifications for the station if the spot is not a "use".  First, without the candidate’s voice or picture, the ad is not entitled to lowest unit rates.  There has been some controversy, not settled by the Federal Election Commission and perhaps subject to interpretations under state election commission rules, about whether a station that charges a candidate lowest unit rates for a spot not entitled to such rates may be making a corporate campaign contribution to that candidate, which is prohibited under Federal law and in most states.  Most importantly for the stations, if the spot does not have the candidates voice or picture in it, the spot is not covered by the ‘No censorship" provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act.  That provision prohibits a station from rejecting a candidate’s ad based on its content.  But, because the station can’t reject the ad based on its content, the station has no liability for the contents of the ad.  Conversely, if the ad does not have the appearance by the candidate in it, then the station is free to reject it based on its content, and thus the station could theoretically have liability for the content of the ad.  As we approach a heated election season where stations don’t want the obligation to check the veracity of every claim made by one candidate about an opposing candidate in an attack ad, stations should be careful to insure that spots purchased by candidates are in fact uses, containing the recognizable voice or picture of the candidate – even for state and local candidates. 


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The DISCLOSE Act recently passed the Committee in the House of Representatives charged with dealing with it, without many of the provisions that most worried broadcasters and cable companies.  We recently wrote about the DISCLOSE Act legislation proposed in both the House and Senate in response to the Citizens United Supreme Court case (which freed

The 2010 political broadcasting season is off to a fast start, with a controversy already erupting in connection with the Illinois Senate race to fill the seat once held by President Obama.  Illinois has one of the first primaries in the nation for the 2010 election, to be held on February 2, 2010.  In that race, Andy Martin, one of the Republican candidates for the open Senate seat that will be vacated by Senator Burris, is reportedly running ads on radio in Illinois stating that the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Mark Kirk, is rumored to be gay, and has many gay staffers, and asking that Kirk clear up questions about his sexuality.  Many stations in Illinois have expressed concern about running an ad from a fringe candidate in the race that makes such a controversial allegation.  Stations that are concerned need to remember that an ad by a legally qualified candidate cannot be censored once a station has agreed to sell time to the candidate.  As we’ve written previously, if the attacking candidate is legally qualified for a place on the primary ballot, as news reports indicate that he is in the Illinois case, then stations cannot censor that ad – and have to run it with these attacks on the front-running candidate, even if the stations do not like the message. 

The Chicago Tribune story about this controversy quotes me as stating that stations can censor a candidate ad if the ad violates a Federal felony statute.  That caveat was added to FCC policy when it was feared that Larry Flint was going to run for Federal political office and run campaign ads that might test the limits of obscenity laws.  More importantly, however, stations should recognize that, because they cannot censor an ad by a candidate’s authorized campaign, the station itself has no liability for the contents of that ad.  The candidate may be sued for libel or defamation (which has occurred in other cases), but the station itself should be immune from liability as it has no choice but to run the ad or violate Federal election laws.  Stations do, however, have the ability to put disclaimers on ads – stating that they are political messages that cannot be censored and do not necessarily reflect the views of the station, but these disclaimers should be applied to all candidates for the same race equally.


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Each election season brings new issues for broadcasters. In recent years, broadcasters are more and more frequently dealing with requests for political uses of the a station’s website. For the most part, unlike a broadcast station that is subject to the full panoply of the FCC’s political rules, those rules largely don’t apply to station websites (some FEC rules, will not be discussed here, may apply to websites). About the only informal pronouncement to come out of the FCC on the use of a station website is that, if the website is sold to one candidate as part of a package with broadcast spot time, then the same offer should be made to competitors of the candidate. This is not an application of FCC’s the rules to the Internet, but instead just a restatement of a long-standing FCC policy that, if one advertiser gets extra benefits that come with the purchase of ad time, and those benefits would be of value to a candidate, they should also be offered to the candidate, and that equal opportunities demands that all candidates for the same office be treated alike.

While the freedom from reasonable access, lowest unit rates, and equal time may seem like a boon to broadcasters, that freedom comes with a price. For instance, the “no censorship rule,” which forbids a station from editing the content of a candidate’s spot or rejecting that spot based on its content (unless that spot violates a Federal felony statute), does not apply to Internet spots. Because candidate spots broadcast on a station cannot be censored, the station has no liability for the content of those spots. So the station is immune for libel and slander, or copyright violations, or other sources of potential civil liability for the content of a candidate’s broadcast spots. But since these spots can be censored or rejected on the station’s website, a station could have theoretical liability for the content of the Internet spot even though the broadcaster could run the exact same spot on the air without fear of any liability. For instance, just recently, according to the Los Angeles Times, CBS asked You Tube to remove a McCain spot attacking Senator Obama as the spot used a copyrighted clip of a Katie Couric commentary without permission. Had that spot been running on a broadcast station, the station would have been forbidden from pulling the spot (and would have no liability for the copyright violation).


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