In the last few days, two defamation cases filed against media companies by the Trump campaign have been dismissed – one on the merits and one by agreement of the parties.  This includes the suit filed by the campaign against Northland Television, the licensee of a rural Wisconsin television station.  That station was perhaps the smallest TV station to air an ad by a non-candidate group, Priorities USA, that the Trump campaign alleged was misleadingly edited to assert that the President had labeled the coronavirus a “hoax.”  As we wrote here when that suit was first filed, the campaign claimed that the reference to the hoax was not about the virus itself but was actually a reference to “the Democrats’ exploitation of a pandemic and related characterization of the candidate’s response to the pandemic.”  This suit was vigorously opposed by the station and the sponsor of the ad.  The parties have now agreed to voluntarily dismiss that suit with prejudice, meaning that it cannot be refiled.

Another suit was brought by the campaign against CNN alleging that CNN had libeled the President by publishing on its website an article from one of its contributors who alleged that the campaign had assessed the risks of seeking Russian assistance in the 2020 campaign and had “decided to leave that option on the table.”  The campaign alleged that the statement was false and defamatory – and published with knowledge that it was false.  CNN had countered that the statement was protected as it was presented as opinion, not fact, and moreover it was published without “actual malice.”  As we have written before (see, for instance, our articles here and here), under Supreme Court precedent, a claim about a public figure for defamation can only be sustained if it is both false and published with “actual malice” – meaning that the publisher knew that it was false, or acted with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was false and published it anyway.
Continue Reading Two Trump Defamation Claims Dismissed Including Claim Against TV Station for Political Attack Ad – What is the Relevance for Broadcasters? 

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?

Davis Wright Tremaine attorneys Amber Husbands and David Oxenford conducted a webinar on August 26, 2009 for the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, discussing legal issues of importance to on-air talent.  Issues discussed included broadcast indecency, station contests, sponsorship identification and payola issues, potential liability that can arise from the use of

The American Issues Project has recently started running a controversial new television ad attacking Barrack Obama for his connections to former Weather Underground figure William Ayers.  The text of the ad is reported here.  While reportedly some cable outlets (including Fox News) have refused to air the ad, numerous broadcast stations are also wondering what the legal implications of running the ad may be.  We have already seen many other attack ads being run by third-party groups – including political parties, long-standing activist groups like Move On.org, as well as from new organizations like American Issues Project which have seemingly been formed recently.  As the use of such ads will no doubt increase as we get closer to the November election, it is important that broadcasters understand the issues that may arise in connection with such ads under various laws dealing with political broadcasting.  Legal issues that must be considered arise not only under FCC rules, but also potentially in civil courts for liability that may arise from the content of the ad.  Broadcast stations are under no obligation to run ads by third party groups, and stations have a full right to reject those ads based on their content.  This is in contrast to ads by Federal candidates, who have a right of reasonable access to all broadcast stations, and whose ads cannot be censored by the stations.  As a candidate’s ad cannot be censored, the station has no liability for its contents.  In contrast, as the station has the full discretion as to whether or not it will run a third-party ad, it could have liability for defamation or other liabilities that might arise from the content of such ads that it decides to accept and put on the air.  

The standards for proving defamation (libel and slander) of a public figure are high, but if the ad does contain some clearly false statements, the standard could in fact be met.   Basically, to have liability, the station needs to run an ad containing a false statement either knowing that the ad is untrue or with "reckless disregard" for the truthfulness of the statements made.  This is referred to as the "malice standard."  Essentially, once a station is put on notice that the ad may be untrue (usually by a letter from the candidate being attacked, or from their lawyers),  the station needs to do their own fact checking to satisfy themselves that there is a basis for the claims made or, theoretically, the station could itself be subject to liability for defamation if the claims prove to be untrue.  A few years ago, some TV stations in Texas ended up having to pay a candidate because they ran an ad by an attack group that was shown to contain false statements, and the ad was run even after the candidate complained that the statements were untrue.  These determinations are often difficult to make as the ad’s creators usually have hundreds of pages of documentation that they say supports their claims, while the person being attacked usually has documentation to refute the claims.  Thus, the determination as to whether or not to run the ad is a decision that each station needs to make after consultation with their lawyers, and after careful review of the spot and the backing documentation.


Continue Reading Independent Groups Start Running Presidential Attack Ads – What Are the Legal Implications for Broadcasters?