Political speech has been called the "life-breath of democracy" by the US Supreme Court and receives very strong First Amendment protection.  For that reason, the FCC has said that it will "not attempt to judge the truth or falsity of material broadcast regarding candidates or ballot issues."  That principle is sure to be tested in the wave of negative campaign ads we are likely to see between now and November, many of which will generate "cease and desist" letters from the subjects of those negative ads. Of course, broadcasters and cable operators alike are immune from liability for anything said in the context of a candidate "use" featuring a sponsoring candidate’s recognizable voice or image…the so-called "no censorship" rule.

There is, however, one type of political ad that could create potential liability for the media if allowed to run unchecked:  A third party or PAC attack ad that is defamatory. A defamatory ad is one that exposes the candidate to public hatred, shame, disgrace or ridicule.  Generally, these are ads that allege crime, fraud, dishonest or immoral conduct on the part of the candidate.  Truth is the only absolute defense to a defamatory claim.  Therefore, when defamation is alleged, substantiation should be requested.  Read on for details of a recent case study….


Continue Reading Political Ad Content—When Do You Need to Worry?

On May 27, 2010, David Oxenford spoke to the Vermont Association of Broadcasters annual meeting in Montpelier, updating the broadcasters on Washington events of importance, and discussing the FCC’s political broadcasting rules.  A copy of Dave’s PowerPoint on issues of importance to broadcasters will be posted here soon.  Broadcasters may want to refer to Davis Wright Tremaine’s Political Broadcasting Guide for a discussion of the political broadcasting issues that may arise in this election season.  One of the political broadcasting issues that was discussed in detail was the issue of what a station should do when faced with a political ad that comes from a third party, attacking a political candidate, and the candidate tells the station that the ad is untrue and, if it continues to run on the air, it may subject the station to liability.

This issue may be coming up more in the coming months.  The recent Citizens United case signals the potential for more campaign spending by corporations and labor unions. This money would be spent directly by these organizations, not contributed to the candidates, as the case did not loosen the limits on corporate contributions directly to candidate’s campaign committees. Thus, as the ads will not come from candidates, they will not be subject to the “no censorship” rule that applies only to candidate ads. Because the no censorship rules prevent a broadcast station from rejecting a candidate’s ad based on its content, stations are protected from any liability for the content of those candidate ads. In contrast, broadcasters are free to reject ads from corporations, labor unions, or other non-candidate groups. Because they can choose whether or not to accept such ads, they can technically be held liable for the contents of those ads, should the ad be defamatory or otherwise contain legally actionable material. This should not be new to broadcasters as, even before Citizens United, stations were often faced with complaints from candidates about ads from third party interest groups (like the political parties’ campaign committees, or so-called 527 groups like MoveOn.org) that were permitted to advertise even before the recent decision. Most broadcasters want to be able to accept these advocacy ads from non-candidate groups, but they also want to avoid potential liability. What is a station to do when it receives such an ad, or when an ad is already running and a candidate complains about its contents?


Continue Reading David Oxenford Speaks to Vermont Broadcasters – Addresses What to Do When a Station Receives a Complaint about the Truth of a Political Ad

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. 


Continue Reading What is the Impact on Broadcasters of Supreme Court Decision that Corporations Can Buy Political Ads? More Money, More Ad Challenges and the Return of the Zapple Doctrine

Each election season brings new issues for broadcasters. In recent years, broadcasters are more and more frequently dealing with requests for political uses of the a station’s website. For the most part, unlike a broadcast station that is subject to the full panoply of the FCC’s political rules, those rules largely don’t apply to station websites (some FEC rules, will not be discussed here, may apply to websites). About the only informal pronouncement to come out of the FCC on the use of a station website is that, if the website is sold to one candidate as part of a package with broadcast spot time, then the same offer should be made to competitors of the candidate. This is not an application of FCC’s the rules to the Internet, but instead just a restatement of a long-standing FCC policy that, if one advertiser gets extra benefits that come with the purchase of ad time, and those benefits would be of value to a candidate, they should also be offered to the candidate, and that equal opportunities demands that all candidates for the same office be treated alike.

While the freedom from reasonable access, lowest unit rates, and equal time may seem like a boon to broadcasters, that freedom comes with a price. For instance, the “no censorship rule,” which forbids a station from editing the content of a candidate’s spot or rejecting that spot based on its content (unless that spot violates a Federal felony statute), does not apply to Internet spots. Because candidate spots broadcast on a station cannot be censored, the station has no liability for the content of those spots. So the station is immune for libel and slander, or copyright violations, or other sources of potential civil liability for the content of a candidate’s broadcast spots. But since these spots can be censored or rejected on the station’s website, a station could have theoretical liability for the content of the Internet spot even though the broadcaster could run the exact same spot on the air without fear of any liability. For instance, just recently, according to the Los Angeles Times, CBS asked You Tube to remove a McCain spot attacking Senator Obama as the spot used a copyrighted clip of a Katie Couric commentary without permission. Had that spot been running on a broadcast station, the station would have been forbidden from pulling the spot (and would have no liability for the copyright violation).


Continue Reading Political Advertising Rules for Station Websites – Opportunites and Pitfalls