no censorship of political ads

It seems like every other week, there is a story about an online media giant making changes in their rules that govern political advertising on their platform – and being either praised or condemned for doing so. We recently wrote about the controversy over Facebook deciding to not fact-check candidate ads, and how Congress itself requires by statute that broadcast stations take that same position. Broadcast stations are not allowed to censor ads from legally qualified candidates so, except in very limited circumstances where the ads may be criminal in nature (and not where they might just give rise to civil claims, like in the case of defamation or copyright infringement), broadcasters cannot reject ads based on their content. The right of a person being defamed in an ad for redress of any civil claim they may have is against the candidate who sponsored the ad, not against the broadcaster. Last week brought the news that Twitter has decided to ban political ads from its platform. Broadcasters, on the other hand, have no ability to ban ads for Federal candidates, as Congress has legislated a right of access to the airwaves where broadcasters cannot refuse to run political advertising from any Federal candidate.

That right of reasonable access, written into Section 312 of the Communications Act, requires that broadcasters give Federal candidates access to all classes of advertising time sold on a broadcast station, and that access be provided in all parts of the broadcast day. See our post here for more information about that reasonable access requirement, and our post here on the limited exception accorded for special events with limited advertising inventory (like the Super Bowl), where the provision of ads to one side might be problematic as there would be no opportunity for an opposing candidate to find an equivalent opportunity to advertise, and because of the potential disruption to commercial advertising on these stations given the limited availability of advertising breaks in such programs.
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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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As we approach Election Day, the political ads seem to be getting more and more frequent, and often more and more nasty.  We provided this overview of what a station should do when it gets an attack ad two years ago, and the ads have not become kinder in the intervening period, so we will publish it again (with a few revisions). With the rise in the number of attack ads in this last week before the election, stations are facing more and more demands from candidates who are being attacked, asking that the ads be pulled from the airwaves because the content is not truthful or otherwise presents a distorted picture of reality.  What do stations do when confronted with these claims?

We have written about this issue several times before (see, for instance, our articles here and here).  In some cases, the stations can do nothing – if the attack is contained in an ad by a candidate or the candidate’s authorized campaign committee.  If a candidate in his or her own ads attacks another candidate, the station cannot pull the ad based on its content.  Ads by candidates and their authorized campaign committees are covered by the Communication Act’s “no censorship” provision, meaning that the station cannot (except in very limited circumstances) pull the ad based on its content (see more on the “no censorship” provision here).  Because the station cannot pull the ad based on its content, the station has no liability if the candidate’s attack ad defames their opponent.  In fact, we have heard of cases where a non-candidate group runs an attack ad containing claims that the target of the ad claims are untrue, where stations pull the ad, and where the claims soon reappear in the ads of the candidate who the third-party supported. When they objectionable claims are in a candidate’s own ads, the only remedy of the candidate that is being attacked is to sue the candidate who ran the ad.  But what about allegedly false claims made in ads by third parties – like PACs, unions, political parties or other non-candidate groups? 
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With election season upon us again, I’ve had one question that has come up repeatedly in the last few weeks about local candidates – usually running for state or municipal offices – who appear in advertisements for local businesses that they own or manage. Often times, these individuals will routinely appear in a business’ ads outside of election season, and the candidate simply wants to continue to appear on their businesses’ ads during the election as well. We wrote about this question in an article published two years ago, and since the question has been coming up again, it is worth revisiting the subject. What is a station to do when a local advertiser decides to run for office?

While we have many times written about what happens when a broadcast station’s on-air employee runs for office (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here), we have addressed the question less often about the advertiser who is also a candidate. If a candidate’s recognizable voice or, for TV, image appears on a broadcast station in a way that is not negative (e.g. it is not in an ad attacking that candidate), outside of an exempt program (in other words, outside of a news or news interview program which, as we wrote here, is a very broad category of programming exempt from the equal time rules) that appearance is a “use” by the political candidate. “Uses” can arise well outside the political sphere, so Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were pulled from TV when he was running for office, as were any re-runs of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice featuring Donald Trump. An appearance by a candidate in a commercial for his or her local business is a “use” which needs to be included in a station’s political file (providing all the information about the sponsor, schedule and price of the ad that you would for any pure political buy). But that does not necessarily mean that a station needs to pull the ad from the air.
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From time to time, questions come up as to whether it is acceptable for broadcast stations to air ads from a political candidate which do not feature the voice or, for TV, the image, of the candidate.  Ads from Federal candidates should almost never be missing the recognizable voice or image, as there are Federal Election Commission rules that specifically put the requirement on the candidate to appear on the spots in the “Stand By Your Ad” disclaimer (“I’m John Smith and I approved this message”).  But sometimes ads from state or local candidates, in states where the Federal requirements have not been extended to local elections by the state legislature, may be missing the voice or image of the candidate.  What are the implications for stations in airing such ads?

The most important implication is in the potential liability of the station for the content of the political ad.  When an ad is a “use” by a candidate, the station cannot censor its content.  It must be run as it is delivered to the station.  Because a station cannot censor the ad, the station has no liability for the contents of the ad.  So if the candidate defames his or her opponent, or violates copyright law, the station cannot be held liable for the content of the ad.  We have written many times about this “no censorship” rule. As we wrote here, that rule (and virtually all of the political rules but for reasonable access) applies to state and local candidates just as it does to Federal candidates. 
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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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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.
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How can political attack ads get away with taking out-of-context statements of the candidates that they are attacking, and twisting these statements to convey meanings that were never intended by the candidate who first uttered the words? And how can political ads take a single line of an incredibly complex piece of legislation and use that legislation to allege that a candidate has violated some core belief that the candidate espouses on the campaign trail? Do stations have liability for these attack ads, and must they react when the candidate being attacked asks that the ad be pulled? In the fourth of our series of political broadcasting refreshers (following those on lowest unit rates, equal opportunities, and reasonable access), we’ll address the question of the no censorship provision of the rules and what rights stations have to deal with the content of political ads.

Starting with the basics, the FCC rules (stemming from Section 315 of the Communications Act) prohibit broadcasters from censoring the content of advertising that is a “use” by a candidate. Essentially, that means that the broadcaster cannot reject an ad that is sponsored by the candidate or the candidate’s official campaign committee, if that ad has the recognizable voice or image of the candidate somewhere in the course of the ad. No matter how outrageous the statement of the candidate may be, the station cannot refuse to run the ad (with the limited instance of ads that are legally obscene or which otherwise may violate some Federal felony statute). So, even if an ad by a candidate may be totally untrue in claims made about the candidate’s opponent, or even if it could give rise to other civil liability (for instance if it is defamatory or a copyright violation), the station cannot refuse to run the ad.


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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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