liability of broadcast station for truth of ads

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

At the end of last week, the press reported on the jury verdict finding Rolling Stone magazine to be liable for defamation for its story, later retracted, about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. The case was brought by a University administrator who was portrayed negatively, including making her sound as if she had been indifferent or dismissive of the alleged rape, which evidence later showed to be untrue. Even though the court deemed the administrator to be a “public figure,” the jury nevertheless found that there was sufficient “malice” on the part of Rolling Stone to merit the finding of liability. While this decision may well be appealed, it nevertheless is a finding of which broadcasters and other media companies need to take note, as it demonstrates that a sloppy review of the facts of a news report can lead to liability – even when reporting on public figures and important issues of wide public concern.

Under the NY Times v Sullivan Supreme Court precedent, the decision in defamation cases quite often depends on the determination of whether the person who was allegedly defamed is a public figure. The thinking of the Supreme Court in adopting the distinction between public figures and private individuals is that the public has more interest in vetting public figures, and by becoming a public figure, individuals expect that their conduct will be under scrutiny. To adopt a strict liability standard for public figures would mean that, if any mistake is made in reporting on their actions, a press outlet could find itself facing defamation liability, even if that mistake was made in good faith after reasonable reporting had been done. To avoid this strict liability, the Supreme Court decided that, if the victim is a public figure, to find liability, the jury must find not only that the statement made by the defendant was false, but also that it was made with “malice.” What does that mean?
Continue Reading What Broadcasters Can Learn from the Rolling Stone Defamation Case

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

Advertising from Stephen Colbert’s Super PAC was rejected by Des Moines television station WOI-TV, based on its belief that these commercials would be confusing to Iowa voters.  Colbert, the host of Comedy Central’s the Colbert Report, has formed his own Political Action Committee to run ads during the upcoming Presidential election.  The first ads ran in Iowa this past week – making fun of the amount of third party money that was being spent on political advertising in Iowa and urging voters to vote for "Rick Parry", with an "a" rather than "Rick Perry."   WOI-TV, rejected them, while the spots ran on all other stations in Iowa’s capitol city.  Are there legal issues with this station deciding not to run these ads?

Not at all.  The FCC has said many times that broadcast stations are not "common carriers," meaning that they don’t have to run all advertising time that advertisers want to run on their stations.  Instead, stations pick and choose among the ads that are brought their way, and stations have an affirmative duty to reject ads that they feel are not in the public interest.  So, while many may question whether these Colbert ads were outside of the norms applied to advertising in the public interest (as Colbert himself argued that the station runs many other ads as likely to confuse the public on many issues), the station has the absolute, non-delegable duty to decide on its own what is and what is not in the public interest – with the very narrow exception of candidate ads.


Continue Reading Colbert Super PAC Ad Rejected by Iowa TV Station – Can They Do That?