In recent weeks, Facebook has been criticized for adopting a policy of not censoring advertising and other content posted on its platforms by political candidates.  While Facebook apparently will review content whose veracity is challenged when posted by anyone else, it made an exception for posts by political candidates – and has received much heat from many of those candidates, including some who are currently in Congress.  In some cases, these criticisms have suggested that broadcasters have taken a different position and made content-based decisions on candidate ads.  In fact, Congress itself long ago imposed in Section 315(a) of the Communications Act a “no censorship” requirement on broadcasters for ads by federal, state, and local candidates.  Once a candidate is legally qualified and once a station decides to accept advertising for a political race, it cannot reject candidate ads based on their content.  And for Federal candidates, broadcasters must accept those ads once a political campaign has started, under the reasonable access rules that apply only to federal candidates.

In fact, as we wrote here, broadcasters are immune from any legal claims that may arise from the content of over-the-air candidate ads, based on Supreme Court decisions. Since broadcasters cannot censor ads placed by candidates, the Court has ruled, broadcasters cannot be held responsible for the content of those ads.  If a candidate’s ad is defamatory, or if it infringes on someone’s copyright, the aggrieved party has a remedy against the candidate who sponsored the ad, but that party has no remedy against the broadcaster.  (In contrast, when a broadcaster receives an ad from a non-candidate group that is claimed to be false, it can reject the ad based on its content, so it has potential liability if it does not pull the ad once it is aware of its falsity – see our article here for more information about what to do when confronted with issues about the truth of a third-party ad).  This immunity from liability for statements made in candidate ads absolves the broadcaster from having to referee the truth or falsity of political ads which, as is evident in today’s politically fragmented world, may well be perceived differently by different people.  So, even though Facebook is taking the same position in not censoring candidate ads as Congress has required broadcasters to take, should it be held to a different standard? 
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According to Politico, Ted Cruz’ campaign has demanded that TV stations pull certain PAC ads which he claims distort his voting record on immigration issues. This kind of claim from a political candidate about the unfairness of attack ads is common. Here, Cruz’ representatives apparently don’t threaten lawsuits against the stations for running the ads, but suggest that it is a violation of the stations’ FCC obligations to operate in the public interest to continue to run the ads. What is a station to do when such a claim is received?

We have written many times about this issue. Much depends on who is sponsoring the attack ad. If the ad is sponsored by the authorized campaign committee of another candidate, and features the voice or image of the sponsoring candidate, the station cannot do anything. As we wrote in detail here, a station cannot censor a candidate ad. Once it has agreed to sell time to a political candidate or his or her authorized campaign committee, the station must run the ad as delivered by the candidate without edit (with the very limited exception of being able to add a sponsorship identification if one is missing, or when running the ad would constitute a felony, e.g. running a spot that is legally obscene – not just indecent but obscene, meaning that it has no redeeming social significance). Because the station is required to run the ad as delivered by the candidate, the station has no liability for the content of the ad. So, if the candidate being attacked complains, the station can do nothing to edit, censor or pull the attacking candidate’s ad without violating the “no censorship” provisions of Section 315 of the Communications Act. The candidate being attacked has a remedy against the ad’s sponsor, not against the station. Third party ads, however, are different.
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With the Florida broadcast airwaves overrun with political ads in the last few days – the great majority of them attack ads – many ask why do broadcasters keep running those ads?  Of course, there are revenue considerations.  But as the attacks get nastier, and perhaps even go against the interest of the station owners themselves, why do broadcasters keep running these ads?  Often, it’s because broadcasters have to – under the applicable laws.  We’ve seen two stories this week that illustrate that point – one where Gloria Allred, the well-known attorney, has written to a number of television stations asking them to refuse graphic anti-abortion ads to be run during the Super Bowl sponsored by purported Democratic presidential candidate Randall Terry, and a second about an NBC-owned station in Florida apparently continued to run a Mitt Romney ad attacking Newt Gingrich, featuring NBC News footage of an old Tom Brokaw Nightly News report, even after NBC News asked the Romney campaign to stop using the clip.  The NBC station apparently recognized its obligations, while Ms. Allred ignored the station’s obligations under Section 315 of the Communications Act and the FCC’s political broadcasting rules. 

Broadcasters are sometimes in a sticky position with nasty political ads, as by law (Section 315 of the Communications Act) they are not allowed to censor a candidate ad.  What this means is that they cannot reject a candidate ad based on its content, with the possible limited exception of where the ad violates a Federal felony statute like the obscenity laws (though not the indecency rules, which are not felony statutes).  If the ads just violate someone’s property interests, or could give rise to some sort of civil liability (e.g. defamation), as we’ve written before, the broadcaster is immune from liability for running the ad by a candidate or his authorized campaign committee. The broadcaster is also immune from liability from a perceived copyright action like that alleged by NBC.  But that immunity arises only because the station cannot, under law, reject the ad.  So the only remedy for someone objecting to the content of a candidate’s ad is to seek a remedy against the campaign itself, not against any station that runs the campaign’s ad.  (See examples of suits against the candidates, but not the stations, in cases we wrote about here and here)  So, even if the copyright owner who objects to the use of its copyrighted content in an ad owns the TV station, it is still stuck running the ad if the candidate insists.

Similarly, in the case that Ms. Allred complained about – asking stations to pull the graphic anti-abortion ads sponsored by Randall Terry, she posed the wrong question – alleging that the ad would be offensive and inflammatory.  Stations can’t make those judgments about political ads – they have to run them even if they can be upsetting. The FCC has even been told by the Courts that it can’t allow stations to channel upsetting political ads (like those anti-abortion ads that Mr. Terry plans to run), into late night hours.  If a candidate wants to run ads in the middle of the day (or in the middle of children’s programs), a station can warn its audience that the ad may be disturbing and that it is being forced by law to run it, as long as such warnings are done in a neutral fashion, but it must run the ad in the form the candidate created it.  So what should Ms. Allred have argued about the Terry ads?


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As we enter the waning days of this election season, where some candidates get more desperate and the attack ads get sharper, broadcasters are often faced with requests that they pull an ad created by a candidate.  Claims are made that the ad contains untrue claims about an opponent or that the ad contains copyrighted material used without permission.  What is a station to do?  When the ad is an ad purchased by a candidate or their authorized committee, and contains a "use" by the purchasing candidate (a use being a spot where the purchasing candidate’s voice or likeliness appears on the spot) the broadcaster is forbidden from censoring that ad.  Essentially, that means that the candidate can say just about anything in their ad (as long as it does not violate a Federal felony statute), and the FCC’s rules prohibit the broadcaster from refusing to air the ad based on its content.  But, because the station cannot censor the ad, it has no liability for the contents of that ad.  This is in contrast to ads by third parties (e.g. advocacy groups, unions, political parties and others not specifically authorized by the candidate), where the broadcaster theoretically has liability for the content of a political ad (see our post on that subject, here).

Two recent cases illustrate the issue.  In one, according to press reports, in a race for the sole seat in the House of Representatives representing the state of North Dakota, one candidate has claimed that the ads of the other misrepresent the positions of that candidate.  The candidate being attacked has asked that the spots be pulled from the air, while the candidate running the spots has refused to pull them.  Even if requested by the candidate being attacked, and even if the ad is in fact false, broadcasters cannot pull one candidate’s ad if that candidate wants to continue to run it.


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