graphic antiabortion ads

In an 11th hour decision released at about 5 PM on the Friday before the Super Bowl,the FCC decided that TV station WMAQ-TV in Chicago was justified in denying Randall Terry’s request to buy advertising time in the Super Bowl.  As we’ve written before, Mr. Terry is claiming that he is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, and as such has a right of reasonable access to broadcast stations, meaning that they must sell him advertising time.  If he had such rights, the stations could not censor the content of the ads that the candidate decided to run (see our article here about the Communications Act’s no censorship rule).  As Mr. Terry has promised to run some very graphic antiabortion ads featuring images of aborted fetuses, many stations were reluctant to run the ads, especially in the Super Bowl when families will be watching the big game.  The FCC decided that WMAQ-TV acted reasonably in denying Mr. Terry time in the Super Bowl for two reasons: (1) he had failed to make a substantial showing of his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in Illinois, and (2) even if he had, he had no right to demand that his ads be placed in the Super Bowl.  Each of these prongs of the decision clarifies some issues in the law of political broadcasting that had been long-debated, but the first part of the decision leaves questions – important questions to which many stations want answers.

The first prong of the decision concluded that WMAQ-TV was justified in determining that Mr. Terry was not a bona fide candidate for the Democratic nomination for President in Illinois as he was not on the ballot there, and had not made a "substantial showing" that he was otherwise a candidate in the state (see our discussion of the requirements to be a legally qualified candidate, here).  The FCC found that the station did not need to be a private investigator and ferret out every instance of campaign activity that Mr. Terry had engaged in within the state to determine if his activity was substantial.  Instead, the station could rely on the information that Terry presented to it when he made his request.  That information essentially amounted to the fact that he had made appearances in two small towns in the state, and had some campaign literature (though there was no evidence that it was ever distributed in Illinois).  Based on those facts, the Commission denied the request – concluding that he had not engaged in campaign activities throughout a substantial portion of the state, as required by prior FCC precedent.  While this may answer the question in this case (and helped to clarify the law as to the showing that write-in candidates need to make before they can demand reasonable access to broadcast stations), it leaves several questions unanswered for stations that have or may receive Mr. Terry’s request for airtime in other states where Mr. Terry is on the ballot.

Continue Reading FCC Decides That Randall Terry Not Entitled to Run Graphic Anti-Abortion TV Ads in the Super Bowl For His “Presidential Campaign” – But Questions Remain

With the Iowa primary approaching, political ads are increasing on the local Iowa TV stations.  While the national press may have been focused on some of the recent Rick Perry ads about the end of "don’t ask, don’t tell" and its connection to the celebration of Christmas in the public schools, there has been an even more controversial ad running on Iowa TV stations – anti-abortion spots being run by Randall Terry, the head of Operation Rescue, who has announced that he is running for the Democratic nomination for President – challenging President Obama for the privilege of running in next year’s election.  Some of the planned ads have graphic depictions of the results of abortions.  These ads are disturbing to some, and many viewers (and many stations) are concerned and upset about their being broadcast – so why are stations running them?  For the most part, it is based on the requirement of Section 315 of the Communications Act that prohibits a station from censoring an ad from a candidate for public office.  Not only that, but court rulings concerning the reasonable access provisions of the Communcations Act prohibit stations from channeling potentially disturbing ads to later night hours – limiting stations to a pre-ad disclaimer warning viewers of the content to come and advising them that the ad is being aired by a candidate and is not subject to station censorship (stations should work with counsel to use language on such a disclaimer that has been approved by the FCC). 

But there are issues that stations need to explore to prevent everyone with the money to cover an ad from claiming to be a candidate for office and being able to air disturbing images on broadcast stations.  Under the law, a person has no censorship rights for their ads (and reasonable access rights for Federal candidates) only if they can show that they are a "legally qualified candidate."  In most cases, the question as to whether someone is legally qualified is relatively easy.  The station looks at whether the person has the requisite qualifications for the office that they are seeking (age, residency, citizenship, not a felon, etc.), and then looks to see whether they have qualified for a place on the ballot for the upcoming election or primary.  In most cases, qualifying for a place on the ballot is a function of filing certain papers with a state or local election authority, in some places after having received a certain number of signatures on a petition supporting that person.  But once the local election authority receives the papers (and does whatever evaluation may be required), a person is legally qualified and entitled to all the FCC political broadcasting rights of a candidate: equal opportunities, no censorship, reasonable access if they are Federal candidates, and lowest unit rates during the limited LUC windows (45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election).  But, for Presidential candidates, especially in caucus states, and for write-in candidates, there are slightly different rules that are applied, as there is no election authority to certify that the requisite papers have been filed for a place on the ballot.  Instead, in these situations, a person claiming to be a candidate must make a "substantial showing" that he or she is a bona fide candidate – that he has been doing all the things that a candidate for election in the caucus would do. What does that mean?

Continue Reading Graphic Abortion Ads In Iowa By Presidential Candidate – And A Seminar on FCC Political Broadcasting Rules