As we approach Election Day, the political ads seem to be getting more and more frequent, and often more and more nasty.  With the rise in the number of attack ads, stations are facing more and more demands from candidates who are being attacked in these ads, 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 ad defames their opponent.  The opponent’s only remedy 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? 
Continue Reading Demands to Pull Political Attack Ads – What is a Station to Do? 

In an 11th hour decision released at about 5 PM on the Friday before the Super Bowl,the FCC decided that TV station WMAQ-TV in Chicago was justified in denying Randall Terry’s request to buy advertising time in the Super Bowl.  As we’ve written before, Mr. Terry is claiming that he is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, and as such has a right of reasonable access to broadcast stations, meaning that they must sell him advertising time.  If he had such rights, the stations could not censor the content of the ads that the candidate decided to run (see our article here about the Communications Act’s no censorship rule).  As Mr. Terry has promised to run some very graphic antiabortion ads featuring images of aborted fetuses, many stations were reluctant to run the ads, especially in the Super Bowl when families will be watching the big game.  The FCC decided that WMAQ-TV acted reasonably in denying Mr. Terry time in the Super Bowl for two reasons: (1) he had failed to make a substantial showing of his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in Illinois, and (2) even if he had, he had no right to demand that his ads be placed in the Super Bowl.  Each of these prongs of the decision clarifies some issues in the law of political broadcasting that had been long-debated, but the first part of the decision leaves questions – important questions to which many stations want answers.

The first prong of the decision concluded that WMAQ-TV was justified in determining that Mr. Terry was not a bona fide candidate for the Democratic nomination for President in Illinois as he was not on the ballot there, and had not made a "substantial showing" that he was otherwise a candidate in the state (see our discussion of the requirements to be a legally qualified candidate, here).  The FCC found that the station did not need to be a private investigator and ferret out every instance of campaign activity that Mr. Terry had engaged in within the state to determine if his activity was substantial.  Instead, the station could rely on the information that Terry presented to it when he made his request.  That information essentially amounted to the fact that he had made appearances in two small towns in the state, and had some campaign literature (though there was no evidence that it was ever distributed in Illinois).  Based on those facts, the Commission denied the request – concluding that he had not engaged in campaign activities throughout a substantial portion of the state, as required by prior FCC precedent.  While this may answer the question in this case (and helped to clarify the law as to the showing that write-in candidates need to make before they can demand reasonable access to broadcast stations), it leaves several questions unanswered for stations that have or may receive Mr. Terry’s request for airtime in other states where Mr. Terry is on the ballot.


Continue Reading FCC Decides That Randall Terry Not Entitled to Run Graphic Anti-Abortion TV Ads in the Super Bowl For His “Presidential Campaign” – But Questions Remain

In the waning days before the mid-term election, we have received many questions about the applicability of the political broadcasting rules to state and local candidates.  In particular, we have seen a number of letters from attorneys representing candidates who are running for state and local offices (everything from Governor to county commissioner or school board representative), who claim that an attack by an opposing candidate is unfounded and that a broadcast station must pull that ad from the air.  Just as is the case with Federal candidates, ads by state candidates cannot be censored by a station.  Thus, except in certain very unusual situations (where the language of the ad would violate some Federal criminal statute, e.g. if it is obscene), a station must air the ad as it was created.  It cannot be rejected because the station disagrees with the content or the tone, and it cannot be pulled even if the opposing candidate believes it to be defamatory.  Because the station cannot censor a candidate’s ad, they have no liability for the content of the ad, i.e. they cannot be held responsible for any defamatory content that it may contain, even if they are on notice of that content.  They cannot censor an ad by a candidate or a candidate’s authorized campaign committee – whether that candidate is running for a Federal, state or local office.

Note that, as we have written many times, this is in contrast to those situations where a candidate complains about an attack ad sponsored by a non-candidate group.  In those cases, the station does have the option of whether or not to run the ad (the no censorship provisions of Section 315 of the Communications Act do not apply).  Thus, if the station is on notice that there is potentially defamatory content in an ad, it must do some investigation of that ad, and make an informed decision about whether or not to allow the ad to continue to run.  If it does not investigate, and continues to run an ad that is defamatory after receiving notice of that fact, in some extreme cases, it could face liability for that defamatory content.


Continue Reading Political Broadcasting Reminder – State and Local Candidates Subject to Lowest Unit Charge, No Censorship and Equal Opportunities Rules

While most of the FCC’s political broadcasting rules have remain unchanged for almost 20 years, each year there are a few new wrinkles that arise, and seemingly a few misconceptions that make the rounds among advertising agencies that work with political candidates.  One such misconception that seems to be circulating this year is that an ad for a state or local political candidate does not need to have their voice or picture to be a "use" under FCC rules.  Only "uses" are entitled to lowest unit rates and subject to the no censorship provisions.  For some reason, agencies in several states have tried to convince broadcasters that, as long as a spot has a sponsorship identification at the end (and, for television, a textual sponsorship identification 4% of screen height for 4 seconds), that spot is a "use."  But that is not correct.  A "use" requires that the recognizable voice or picture of a candidate be in the spot – and that is true even for spots for state and local candidates.  Some advertisers may be confused by the change in Federal laws (now itself almost a decade old) that required that Federal candidates identify themselves in their ads and personally state that they approved the message of the ad,  Perhaps some of the advertisers think that, because the law for Federal candidate is so detailed, and because it does not specifically cover state candidates (though several state laws now have imposed the same obligation on state and local candidates in their states), there is no requirement at all for state and local candidates to appear in their ads.  But they are not correct – for a spot to be a use, a candidate him or herself must have a recognizable voice or image in that ad.

While it is not illegal for a station to run a state or local candidate’s ad when the ad does not have a candidates voice in it, there are important ramifications for the station if the spot is not a "use".  First, without the candidate’s voice or picture, the ad is not entitled to lowest unit rates.  There has been some controversy, not settled by the Federal Election Commission and perhaps subject to interpretations under state election commission rules, about whether a station that charges a candidate lowest unit rates for a spot not entitled to such rates may be making a corporate campaign contribution to that candidate, which is prohibited under Federal law and in most states.  Most importantly for the stations, if the spot does not have the candidates voice or picture in it, the spot is not covered by the ‘No censorship" provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act.  That provision prohibits a station from rejecting a candidate’s ad based on its content.  But, because the station can’t reject the ad based on its content, the station has no liability for the contents of the ad.  Conversely, if the ad does not have the appearance by the candidate in it, then the station is free to reject it based on its content, and thus the station could theoretically have liability for the content of the ad.  As we approach a heated election season where stations don’t want the obligation to check the veracity of every claim made by one candidate about an opposing candidate in an attack ad, stations should be careful to insure that spots purchased by candidates are in fact uses, containing the recognizable voice or picture of the candidate – even for state and local candidates. 


Continue Reading Remember that Political Ads By State and Local Candidates Need to Have Candidate’s Recognizable Voice or Picture to Be a Use

In reaction to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision invalidating restrictions on corporate spending on advertising and other messages explicitly endorsing or attacking political candidates (about which we wrote here), new legislation, called the DISCLOSE Act,  has just been introduced in both houses of Congress seeking to mitigate the perceived impact of the Court’s decision.  While the announced goal of the legislation is aimed at disclosure of the individuals and companies who are trying to impact the political process, the draft legislation, if adopted would have significant impact on broadcasters and cable companies, including potentially extending lowest unit rates and reasonable access to Federal political party’s campaign committees (and not just the candidates themselves).  The draft legislation also proposes lower Lowest Unit Rates in political races where there are significant independent expenditures, more disclosure by broadcasters through an on-line political file, and even mandates for audits by the FCC of the rates charged by television stations to political candidates.  The language could also be read as an expansion of the current applicability of the political rules to cable television – applying reasonable access to cable systems and lowest unit rates and equal opportunities to cable networks.  As Congressional leaders are proposing to move this legislation quickly (with votes before July 4) so that it can be in place for the coming Congressional elections, broadcasters and cable companies need to carefully consider the proposals so that they can be discussed with their Congressional representatives before the bills are voted on by Congress.

While much of the bill is intended to force disclosure of those sponsoring ads and otherwise trying to influence the political process, the portions of the bill that amend provisions of the Communications Act include the following:

  • An extension of Reasonable Access to require that broadcasters give reasonable access not just to Federal political candidates, but also to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  In recent years where the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees have been big buyers of broadcast time.  The extension of reasonable access to these groups could put even greater demands on broadcast advertising time on stations in markets with hot races, as stations could not refuse to provide access to "all classes of time and all dayparts", as required by the reasonable access rules.  This could crowd out other advertisers, and even make it harder for ads for state elections (as state and local candidates have no reasonable access rights) in states where there are hotly contested races.
  • Extends the Reasonable Access requirements to require reasonable access to "reasonable amounts of time purchased at lowest unit rates."  The purpose of this change is not clear, as all political time must be sold to candidates at lowest unit rates in the 60 days before a general election and the 45 days before a primary. 
  • Extends the requirement for Lowest Unit Rates to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  Currently, the lowest unit charges apply only to the candidate’s campaign committees, not to political parties.  Under the proposed language, LUC rates would also apply to the parties, and to groups like the Republican and Democratic National Campaign Committees
  • Extends the "no censorship" provisions to Federal political parties and their campaign committees.  This change may be a positive for broadcasters.  As we have written before, a broadcast station cannot censor a candidate’s ad.  But, as they have no power to reject a candidate’s ad based on its contents, they have no liability should that ad contain material that could potentially be defamatory or otherwise subject the station to liability.  This proposed language would extend the no censorship rule to cover ads from Federal political parties, so that stations would not have liability for those ads either.  As many of the hardest hitting attack ads often come from these committees, if this legislation were to pass, stations would not have to worry about evaluating the truth or falsity of the committee’s ads, as they would have no liability for the contents of the ads as they would be forbidden by law from rejecting the ads based on their contents.
  • Provides for a lower Lowest Unit Rate in races where there are independent expenditures by any group of more than $50,000.  If a corporation or other group spends $50,000 in any political race, then all stations would be required to charge all candidates in the race the lowest charge made for "the same amount of time in the last 180 days" – not just the lowest charge for the same class of time as is then currently running on the station.  First, this would force stations to look back 6 months to determine their lowest unit rates.  For a primary election in June or July, rates in the doldrums of January or February could set the June political rates.  Moreover, the legislation does not state that it would look at the lowest rate for the same "class" of time over the previous 180 days, but instead it talks only about the same "amount" of time.  It is unclear if this is an intentional attempt to make stations sell prime time spots at overnight rates, but the current language of the bill seems to avoid the traditional distinctions on spots being sold based on their class.
  • Forbids the preemption of advertising by a legally qualified candidate or national committee except for unforeseen circumstances.  This provision may well be intended to force stations to sell candidates advertising at their lowest nonpreemptible rates, and then treat the spots as they would much more expensive non-preemptible fixed position spots
  • Requires the FCC to conduct random audits during the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election.  Audits would have to be conducted as follows: 
    • 6 of the Top 50 TV markets
    • 3 of the markets 51-100
    • 3 of the markets rates 101-150
    • 3 markets below 150
    • Audits would be required of the 3 largest networks, 1 independent TV network, 1 cable network, 1 provider of satellite services, and 1 radio network.  The language here, too, seems odd, as the requirements for audits are for "networks" of broadcast, cable and radio stations, not for local operators, and for an "independent television network" which would seem to be an inherently contradictory term – if a station is truly an independent, it is not affiliated with a network, so how can the FCC audit an "independent television network"?  It is unclear of whether this provision is requiring audits of the networks themselves, or of affiliates of the networks in the markets in which audits must be conducted. 
  • Requirements that stations keep on their website information about all requests for the purchase of broadcast time by candidates, political parties or other independent political groups. Right now, the rules specifically do not require that political files be kept online.


Continue Reading The Impact of the Proposed DISCLOSE Campaign Reform Act on Broadcasters and Cable Operators – Lowest Unit Rates and Reasonable Access for Political Parties, On Line Political File, FCC Audits and More

The 2010 political broadcasting season is off to a fast start, with a controversy already erupting in connection with the Illinois Senate race to fill the seat once held by President Obama.  Illinois has one of the first primaries in the nation for the 2010 election, to be held on February 2, 2010.  In that race, Andy Martin, one of the Republican candidates for the open Senate seat that will be vacated by Senator Burris, is reportedly running ads on radio in Illinois stating that the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Mark Kirk, is rumored to be gay, and has many gay staffers, and asking that Kirk clear up questions about his sexuality.  Many stations in Illinois have expressed concern about running an ad from a fringe candidate in the race that makes such a controversial allegation.  Stations that are concerned need to remember that an ad by a legally qualified candidate cannot be censored once a station has agreed to sell time to the candidate.  As we’ve written previously, if the attacking candidate is legally qualified for a place on the primary ballot, as news reports indicate that he is in the Illinois case, then stations cannot censor that ad – and have to run it with these attacks on the front-running candidate, even if the stations do not like the message. 

The Chicago Tribune story about this controversy quotes me as stating that stations can censor a candidate ad if the ad violates a Federal felony statute.  That caveat was added to FCC policy when it was feared that Larry Flint was going to run for Federal political office and run campaign ads that might test the limits of obscenity laws.  More importantly, however, stations should recognize that, because they cannot censor an ad by a candidate’s authorized campaign, the station itself has no liability for the contents of that ad.  The candidate may be sued for libel or defamation (which has occurred in other cases), but the station itself should be immune from liability as it has no choice but to run the ad or violate Federal election laws.  Stations do, however, have the ability to put disclaimers on ads – stating that they are political messages that cannot be censored and do not necessarily reflect the views of the station, but these disclaimers should be applied to all candidates for the same race equally.


Continue Reading Early Flap in Illinois Senate Race Reminds Broadcasters that They Cannot Censor Candidate Ad

In two races for the US Senate, candidates have filed defamation lawsuits against their opponents charging that attack ads go over the line from political argument to actionable falsehoods.  However these suits ultimately play out, they demonstrate the premise that we’ve written about before, that broadcast stations are prohibited by FCC rules and the Communications Act from censoring the content of a candidate’s ad, and because they cannot censor the content of a candidate’s ad (or refuse to run a candidate’s ad because of the content of that ad), stations are immune from liability that might otherwise arise from that content.  But the candidates being attacked can sue their opponents for the contents of those ads, and that is just what has happened in the North Carolina and Minnesota Senate races.

In North Carolina, according to press reports, Democratic candidate Kay Hagan has filed suit against the campaign of Elizabeth Dole for a commercial that accused Hagan of being associated with a group called Godless Americans – an ad ending with a woman’s voice that some interpreted as being that of Hagan (when it was in fact not) saying "there is no God."  In Minnesota, Senator Norm Coleman has reportedly filed a lawsuit against Al Franken’s campaign claiming that Franken campaign ads improperly claimed that Coleman was rated one of the four most corrupt Senators and that he was getting an improperly financed apartment in Washington DC. 


Continue Reading Senate Candidates File Lawsuits For Defamation in TV Commercials – But Not Against the TV Stations

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.


Continue Reading Broadcasters Prohibited From Censoring a Candidate’s Ad

As the dates for the first Presidential primaries draw near, more and more stories appear in the press about attack ads growing in importance.  These ads are coming both from the candidates themselves trying to draw distinctions with their opponents, and from third party, supposedly independent, groups either attacking or supporting one of the candidates.  See, for instance, the recent story in the Washington Post on the increase in third party ads.  These ads have raised political issues on the campaign trail as to whether negative campaigns work, and as to how independent of the candidates the third party expenditures really are.  They also raise legal issues for broadcasters.  Whenever there are attack ads that are run on a broadcast station, there are complaints from the candidate being attacked about how unfair the criticism is.  Broadcasters have to deal with these complaints, and the sponsor of the ads makes a huge difference in the broadcaster’s responsibilities to check the truth of the statements made.    As we explain in our Political Broadcasting Guide, broadcasters may not censor the content of a candidate ad, and thus are exempt from any liability for the content of that ad.  But attacks contained in third party ads may require the broadcaster to do some investigation into the claims being made to make sure that they avoid legal liabilities.

For ads run by a candidate or his or her authorized committee, the Communications Act forbids a broadcaster (or cable company that chooses to sell time to political candidates) from censoring the candidate’s message.    Because of the no censorship rule, the Courts have ruled that broadcasters are immune from any sort of liability for defamation that may arise from the content of the ad.  Thus, broadcasters cannot reject a candidate’s message based on its content (with the possible exception of cases where that content would violate a criminal law, as opposed to just creating some civil liability), and need not take any action in response to a complaint by an opposing candidate that the ad contains incorrect or distorted information.


Continue Reading As Presidential Races Heat Up, So Do the Attack Ads – Legal Issues For Broadcasters Dealing With Third Party Political Ads