The Supreme Court Decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, freeing corporations to use their corporate funds to take explicit positions on political campaigns, has been mostly analyzed by broadcast trade publications as a good thing – creating one more class of potential buyers for broadcaster’s advertising time during the political season – which seems to almost be nonstop in these days of intense partisan battles in Washington and in the statehouses throughout the country. What has not been addressed are the potential legal issues that this "third party" money may pose for broadcasters during the course of political campaigns. Not only will an influx of money from non-candidate groups require that broadcasters review the contents of more commercials to determine if the claims that they make are true, but it may also give rise to the return of the Zapple doctrine, one of the few remnants of the Fairness Doctrine never specifically repudiated by the FCC, but one which has not been actually applied in over a quarter of a century. Public file obligations triggered by these ads also can not be overlooked.
First, the need for broadcasters to vet the truth of allegations made in political ads sponsored by non-candidate advertisers. As we have written before(see our post here), the political broadcasting rules enforced by the FCC allow broadcasters to run ads sponsored by the candidates themselves without fear of any liability for the claims made in those ads. In fact, the Communications Act forbids a station from censoring a candidate ad. Because the station cannot censor the candidate ad (except in the exceptionally rare situation where the airing of the ad might violate a Federal felony statute), the broadcaster has no liability for the contents of the ad. So candidates can say whatever they want about each other – they can even lie through their teeth – and the broadcaster need not fear any liability for defamation based on the contents of those ads. This is not so for ads run by third parties – like PACs, Right to Life groups, labor unions, unincorporated associations like MoveOn.org and, after the Citizens United case, corporations.