no censorship of political ads

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

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.


Continue Reading Political Broadcasting Refresher Part 4 – No Censorship – How Can Candidates Get Away With Those Attack Ads?

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?


Continue Reading Why Broadcasters Have To Air Political Attack Ads Even If They Don’t Want To