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?

A story in today’s Wall Street Journal discusses the significant amount of money being spent on television advertising for and against pending proposals for health care reform.  As we have written before, broadcasters are required to keep in their public file information about advertising dealing with Federal issues – records as detailed as those kept for political candidates.  Information in the file should include not only the sponsor of the ad, but also when the spots are scheduled to run (and, after the fact, when they did in fact run), the class of time purchased, and the price paid for the advertising.  Clearly, the health care issue is a Federal issue, as it is being considered by the US Congress in Washington.  So remember to keep your public file up to date with this required information. 

Section 315 of the Communications Act deals with these issues, stating that these records must be kept for any request to purchase time on a "political matter of national importance", which is defined as any matter relating to a candidate or Federal election or "a national legislative issue of public importance."  Clearly, health care would fit in that definition.  The specific information to be kept in the file includes:

  • If the request to purchase time is accepted or rejected
  • Dates on which the ad is run
  • The rates charged by the station
  • Class of time purchased
  • The issue to which the ad refers
  • The name of the purchaser of the advertising time including:
    • The name, address and phone number of a contact person
    • A list of the chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or board of directors of the sponsoring organization.


Continue Reading Health Policy Ads on Broadcast Stations – Remember Your Public File Obligations

We’re not even in what most would consider election season – except for the two states with off-year governor’s contests and those other states with various state and municipal elections. Yet political ads are running on broadcast stations across the country.  Republican groups have announced plans to run ads attacking certain Democratic Congressmen who are perceived as vulnerable, while certain Democratic interest groups have run ads about the positions of Republicans on the Obama stimulus package and the President’s proposed budget.   In addition to these ads targeting specific potential candidates, there are issue ads running across the country on various issues pending before Congress, or likely to be considered by Congress in the near term. These ads often have a tag line “write or call your Congressman and tell him to vote No” on whatever bill is being discussed. While these are not ads for political candidates that require lowest unit rates or specific equal opportunities, they do give rise to political file issues.  Stations need to remember to observe these requirements and put the required information into their public file to avoid FCC issues.

Under provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, when a station runs an ad addressing a “Federal issue”, the station must keep in its public file essentially all the same information about the ad that it would maintain for a candidate ad. The station must identify the spot and the schedule that its sponsor has purchased, the identify of the sponsor (name, address and list of principal executive officers or directors), the class of time purchased, and the price paid for the ads.  Federal issues are ones that deal with a Federal election or with any issue to be considered by Congress or any Federal government agency.


Continue Reading Remember FCC Public File Obligations When Running Issue Advertising

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