liability for false broadcast

Recently, FCC staff dismissed a request by the organization Free Press asking the FCC to investigate the broadcast of the President’s press conferences on the coronavirus and programs where commentators supported the President’s pronouncements.  In addition to an investigation, the request asked that the FCC require that broadcasters “prominently disclose when information they air is false or scientifically suspect” in relation to these press conferences and other broadcasts.   Free Press suggested that the FCC had the authority to take this action under its broad mandate to regulate in the public interest.  It also cited the FCC’s hoax rule as providing support for such an action.  As we have written before, the hoax rule is designed to prevent broadcasts that pose the risk of imminent harm to the public by potentially tying up first responders and emergency response teams for purported disasters and crimes that are not real.  FCC staff dismissed the Free Press complaint, finding that the FCC is forbidden by Section 326 of the Communications Act from censoring the speech of broadcasters or otherwise abridging their freedom of speech.  These First Amendment principles largely keep the FCC out of content regulation (with the limited exceptions of regulation in areas like indecency, obscenity and sponsorship identification where the message is not being censored, just certain means of expression).

In the Free Press decision, the FCC concluded that, in covering a breaking news story like the pandemic, it would be impossible for a broadcaster to fact check every statement made in a press conference and correct any misstatements in anything approaching real time, as there is so much room for interpretation of any statement made on these ongoing matters.  It would also be impossible for the FCC to police any such mandate without trampling on First Amendment principles, as it would require the FCC to become the arbiter of the truth for many claims made on television.  The FCC declined to take on that role, and noted that the hoax rule is narrowly drawn to avoid these First Amendment issues.  That rule only punishes clearly false broadcasts that could foreseeably tie up first responders or cause substantial public harm.  It does not get the FCC involved in evaluations of the truth of political statements and policy pronouncements.  This is a position that has consistently been taken by the FCC, and one that we often see misstated in connection with demands for the take-down of issue advertising and non-candidate political attack ads.
Continue Reading FCC Denies Application of Hoax Rule to Trump Press Conferences on COVID-19 – Looking at the First Amendment and the Commission’s Regulation of Political Speech

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?

With April Fool’s Day only a few short days away, and with many articles running in the trade press about what stations should and shouldn’t do on that day, we thought that we would weigh in with our own legal reminder – no matter what you do, be careful not to violate the FCC’s rule against broadcast hoaxes.  That rule, Section 73.1217 of the Commission’s Rules, prevents stations from running any information about a "crime or catastrophe" on the air, if the broadcaster (1) knows the information to be false, (2) it is reasonably foreseeable that the broadcast of the material will cause substantial public harm and (3) public harm is in fact caused.  Public harm is defined as "direct and actual damage to property or to the health or safety of the general public, or diversion of law enforcement or other public health and safety authorities from their duties."  Air a program deemed a hoax, and expect to be fined by the FCC.

This rule was adopted in the early 1990s after several incidents that were well-publicized in the broadcast industry, including one case where the on-air personalities at a station claimed that there was someone at the station who had taken them hostage, and another case where a station broadcast bulletins that announced that a local trash dump had exploded like a volcano, and was spewing burning trash around the local neighborhood.  In both cases, first responders were notified about the non-existent emergencies, actually responded to the notices that listeners called in, and were prevented from doing their duties responding to real emergencies.  In light of these sorts of incidents, the FCC adopted its prohibition against broadcast hoaxes.  But the FCC rule is not the only reason to be wary on April 1. 

Continue Reading Planning an On-Air April Fools Day Prank? – Remember the FCC’s Rule Against Broadcast Hoaxes