This weekend, the New York Times ran an article seemingly critical of Facebook for not rejecting ads  from political candidates that contained false statements of factWe have already written that this policy of Facebook matches the policy that Congress has imposed on broadcast stations and local cable franchisees who sell time to political candidates – they cannot refuse an ad from a candidate’s authorized campaign committee based on its content – even if it is false or even defamatory (see our posts here and here for more on the FCC’s “no censorship” rule that applies to broadcasting and local cable systems).  As this Times article again raises this issue, we thought that we should again provide a brief recap of the rules that apply to broadcast and local cable political ad sales, and contrast these rules to those that currently apply to online advertising.

As stated above, broadcast stations and local cable systems cannot censor candidate ads – meaning that they cannot reject these ads based on their content.  Commercial broadcast stations cannot even adopt a policy that says that they will not accept ads from federal candidates, as there is a right of “reasonable access” (see our article here, and as applied here to fringe candidates) that compels broadcast stations to sell reasonable amounts of time to federal candidates who request it.  Contrast this to, for instance, Twitter, which decided to ban all candidate advertising on its platform (see our article here).  There is no right of reasonable access to broadcast stations for state and local candidates, though once a station decides to sell advertising time in a particular race, all other rules, including the “no censorship” rule, apply to these ads (see our article here).  Local cable systems are not required to sell ads to any political candidates but, like broadcasters with respect to state and local candidates, once a local cable system sells advertising time to candidates in a particular race, all other FCC political rules apply.  National cable networks (in contrast to the local systems themselves) have never been brought under the FCC’s political advertising rules for access, censorship or any other requirements – although from time to time there have been questions as to whether those rules should apply.  So cable networks, at the present time, are more like online advertising, where the FCC rules do not apply.
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Late last week, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a decision in a case called Washington Post v. David J. McManus, upholding the ruling of the US District Court finding that the State of Maryland’s attempts to impose political advertising reporting obligations on online platforms to be an unconstitutional abridgment of these companies’ First Amendment rights.  The suit was brought by the Washington Post and several other companies owning newspapers with an online presence in the State.  Their arguments were supported by numerous other media organizations, including the NAB and NCTA.  The Maryland rules required that online advertising platforms post on their websites information about political ads within 48 hours of the purchase of those ads.  That information had to be maintained on the website for a year and kept for inspection by the Maryland Board of Elections for a year after the election was over.  The appeals court concluded that the obligation to reveal this information was forcing these platforms to speak, which the court found to be just as much against the First Amendment as telling them to not speak (e.g., preventing them from publishing).  As the court could find no compelling state interest in this obligation that could not be better met by less restrictive means, the law was declared unconstitutional.

The Maryland law required the following disclosures on the website of a platform that accepted political advertising:

  • the ad purchaser’s name and contact information;
  • the identity of the treasurer of the political committee or the individuals exercising control over the ad purchaser; and
  • the total amount paid for the ad.

In addition, the platform had to maintain the following information for a year after the election and make it available to the State authorities upon request:

  • the candidate or ballot issue to which the qualifying paid digital communication relates and whether the qualifying paid digital communication supports or opposes that candidate or ballot issue;
  • the dates and times that the qualifying paid digital communication was first disseminated and last disseminated;
  • a digital copy of the content of the qualifying paid digital communication;
  • an approximate description of the geographic locations where the qualifying paid digital communication was disseminated;
  • an approximate description of the audience that received or was targeted to receive the qualifying paid digital communication; and
  • the total number of impressions generated by the qualifying paid digital communication

The appeals court found that this “compelled speech” forced these platforms to “speak” when they otherwise might not want to – the “speaking” being the mandatory publication of information on their website.  The court also pointed to the potential of these rules to chill political speech, by compelling companies to reveal information about those who might otherwise not want to disclose that they are taking a position on a controversial issue or election.  The court found that anonymity in political speech was part of a long tradition in the US, and it could subject those buying the political ads to harassment.  Also, the added burden of collecting this information could cause platforms to reject political ads in favor of advertising where no such burden was imposed. 
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The FCC last week released two decisions (here and here) addressing complaints from public interest groups against several TV stations alleging that the stations had not sufficiently disclosed in their online public files sufficient information about political issue advertising.  These decisions, as detailed below, will end up making life significantly more difficult for broadcasters running ads from non-candidate groups, as they will need to review each issue ad to come up with a list all of the issues of public importance discussed in the ad.  A perhaps unintended result may also be that there will be more disclosure in the public file of the cost of non-candidate political ads supporting or attacking state and local candidates when those ads mention Federal issues – as more and more ads dealing with state elections now do.  Watch as the ramifications of these decisions become clear in the coming months.

Background:  These decisions should not strike regular readers of this blog as particularly new, as these complaints were considered by the FCC’s Media Bureau in early 2017, under the former leadership of the FCC (see our article here).  When the new Republican-controlled Commission took over, the Media Bureau decisions were rescinded, as the new Commission felt that these issues should be considered by the Commissioners rather than at the Bureau level.  The decisions that resulted from this additional review come to much the same result as had the Media Bureau decision, though some of the explanations are more detailed.  In making the decision more detailed, the Commission may have made the acceptance of political ads from non-candidate groups even more troublesome for broadcasters than these ads have been in the past.  What do these rulings provide?
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In this “political” year with Congressional mid-term elections in November, including many hotly contested races for seats in the US House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as many state and local elections, I receive many questions from broadcasters across the country. Perhaps the area in which most questions are received deals with the “political file,” particularly because these files are now available online. The fact that this file can now be viewed by anyone anywhere across the country has raised many questions that were perhaps less top of mind when the file was available only by physically visiting the main studio of a broadcast station. So, with the election just over a month away, meaning that the busiest advertising period will be coming up between now and the election, I thought that it would be worth taking a look at some of the online public file issues.

As an initial matter, it is worth mentioning that the political file has two main purposes. First, it is designed to provide information to the public about who is trying to convince them to vote in a certain way or to take action on other political issues that may be facing their country or community. Second, the file is to inform one candidate of what uses of broadcast stations his or her opponents are making. Thus, the documents placed in the file must be kept in the file for only two years from the date that they were created – perhaps on the assumption that at that point, we will be on to the next election cycle and old documents really won’t matter to the public or to competing candidates in the last election. But what needs to go into the file?
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The FCC yesterday released the agenda for its October 24th Open Meeting, as well as draft orders of the matters to be considered at that meeting. For broadcasters, the single most significant proposal was a draft order (available here) to abolish the requirement that a broadcast station maintain a main studio in close proximity to its city of license that is open to the public and staffed during normal business hours. The FCC’s draft order determines that, in today’s modern world, where much communication with broadcasters is done by phone or electronically, and as stations either have or soon will have their public files available online, there was no longer any need to maintain the rule mandating the main studio. So, if the Commission adopts the draft order at its October 24th meeting, the requirement which has been on the books since 1939 will be eliminated.

Together with the main studio rule, the FCC order would also eliminate the requirement that the station have staff members available at that studio. Instead, the licensee, to maintain contact with their community, must maintain a toll-free number accessible to residents of the station’s city of license. That number must be answered during normal business hours of the station – but the person answering the phone line need not be in the city of license. The FCC urged, but did not require, that the phone line be monitored during other hours as well. The phone line can be shared with multiple stations – so an “800” number available nationwide would seem to meet the requirement.
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Late Friday, the FCC’s Media Bureau issued an order (at this time available in Word format only, here) clarifying its public file rules for political ads – both ads from candidates and from third-party groups.  The FCC’s clarifications require broadcasters who run candidate or issue advertising to include information about not only the candidates mentioned in an ad, but also any Federal issues that the ad addresses.  On sponsorship identification, the FCC focused on third-party ads, requiring that broadcasters make an inquiry as to the complete set of executive officers or the complete board of directors of any sponsor.  The FCC went on to admonish a number of stations for violating the rules but, as the rules were just clarified, only admonished these stations rather than issuing any fines. This decision was in response to complaints filed by the Campaign Legal Center and the Sunlight Foundation alleging the public file omissions of these stations – complaints that we wrote about here.

The FCC’s order interprets Section 315(e) of the Communications Act, which sets the rules for the disclosures required for political ads.  Under that Section, any political ad that deals with a legally qualified candidate, an election for a Federal office, or with any political issue of national importance, must disclose a variety of information.  That information requires that, in connection with any request for political time, the station must disclose in its public file (1) whether or not the request was accepted, (2) the class of time purchased, (3) the price at which it was sold, (4) the name of the candidate that the ad addresses or the election to which it is directed or the issue discussed, (5) if the ad was bought by a candidate’s authorized committee, the name of the committee and its treasurer, and (6) if the ad was not placed by a candidate’s committee, the name of the sponsor and, where the sponsor is not an individual, the name of the sponsor’s chief executive officers or its executive committee or its board of directors, plus the name, phone number and address of a contact person at the committee.  These requirements were clarified in several respects by the FCC’s order.
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The FCC today issued a Public Notice that the obligation will begin on June 24 to start uploading documents to the online public file for radio stations in the Top 50 markets .   For Top 50 market commercial radio stations that are part of employment units with 5 or more full-time employees, the June 24 date will mark the start of their obligation to upload materials to the online public file.  New public file documents (including political file documents) created on or after that date are to be placed in the online public file.  These stations will have 6 months from the effective date (until December 24, 2016) to upload to the online public file existing documents that are already in their paper public file.    This would include documents like EEO Public Inspection File Reports and Quarterly Issues Programs Lists. Pre-effective date political file documents need not be uploaded. Letters from the public also do not need to be uploaded (see our article here about the FCC’s proposal to entirely do away with the requirement that letters be kept). We wrote more extensively about the obligations for the radio online public inspection file here.

TV, too, needs to pay attention to this notice.  The Public Notice announces that the online public file will be moving to a new database.  Effective on June 24, TV licensees will need to use this new database too – what the FCC calls the “OPIF” (for expanded online public inspection file) as opposed to the old “BPIF” (“broadcast public inspection file”).  The FCC suggests that the new OPIF database will allow for easier uploads – including the ability to upload a single document into multiple stations’ files at the same time.  It will also have a more user-friendly interface, and will work better with other online systems like Dropbox and Box.  This database moves these files off the FCC server and onto a cloud-based storage system.  Stations can already try out the new system here
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In the last day or two, some broadcast trade press reports may have given the impression that the FCC’s new online public file rules for radio may now be “effective,” suggesting that Top 50 market stations with 5 or more full-time employees need to start uploading their new political documents into the file (the first

Last week, we wrote about the FCC’s decision to require that radio stations move their public inspection files online.  Commercial stations with 5 or more full-time employees that are located in Top 50 markets need to make the transition to the online file later this year once the FCC gets its new rules approved by the Office of Management and Budget following a Paperwork Reduction Act review.  Other radio stations will need to come into compliance, unless they get a waiver of the new rules, by March 1, 2018.  Our initial article about the decision was based on the FCC’s press release on the decision and comments made at the FCC meeting at which the obligation was adopted.  The FCC has now released the full-text of the decision (available here) and that order contains many new nuggets of information about the new obligations about which stations need to be aware.

The text of the decision does a good job of summarizing the obligations of radio broadcaster’s current public inspection file obligations (as well as those of the other entities that were also addressed by the new rule – cable systems, DBS operators, and Sirius XM for their satellite radio service).  For each of these services, the FCC addressed a number of issues.  Some of the radio questions addressed by the order include those set forth below.
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The FCC today adopted rules to require that the public inspection files of radio stations (and of cable television systems and operators of satellite radio and television companies) to put their public inspection files online.  While, thus far, the FCC has only released a public notice summarizing its decision and not the full text explaining its reasoning, what is clear is that the new rule will go in to effect later this year for commercial radio stations with 5 or more full-time employees which are located in the Top 50 markets.  Other radio stations will have two years to come into compliance with the new requirements.

The rules, like the TV rules adopted several years ago (see our Q and A about the TV online file requirements, here), require that stations upload their files into an FCC-maintained database that will display the contents of each station’s file to the public.  According to today’s public notice, political broadcasting material only needs to be uploaded on a going forward basis upon the effective date of the new rules (i.e. only new documents created after the effective date of the new rules needs to be uploaded – existing documents would be maintained in the station’s paper file until the two-year retention period for political documents has expired).  It appears that all other documents not already in FCC databases will need to be fully uploaded by licensees within 6 months of the effective date of the new rules.  The documents that will need to be uploaded within that 6 months would include Quarterly Issues Programs Lists and the Annual EEO Public Inspection file report back to the beginning of the station’s current license term – documents not normally filed with the FCC.  Ownership Reports, FCC applications and similar documents filed with the FCC will be automatically uploaded to the station’s public file by the FCC’s own systems. 
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