political advertising on noncommercial stations

Section 399b of the Communications Act bans advertising for for-profit companies, as well as political and issue advertising, on noncommercial radio and television stations.  While Congress over 20 years ago loosened some restrictions on fundraising by allowing paid ads by nonprofit groups on noncommercial stations, and permitting commercial entities to provide some minimal information about their businesses (including their logos) on sponsorship underwriting on public TV, the ban has otherwise prohibited commercial and political ads containing qualitative claims, price information or calls to action.  In a recent decision, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a decision of a California District Court upholding the constitutionality of that ban against a challenge by a noncommercial TV station operator who contended that the rule was an unconstitutional abridgement of the First Amendment.  The case is particularly interesting not just for the analysis by the Court in upholding the ban, but perhaps more so for the dissenting opinion of the Court’s Chief Judge, who found that the Court’s analysis ignored modern realities of the broadcast world in adopting a reduced standard of First Amendment protection for broadcasters leading the majority to be too timid in questioning the justification for the ban advanced by the government.  Thus, the case has importance not just for noncommercial broadcasters looking for new sources of revenue, but also for other broadcasters concerned about intrusive government regulation of their industry and the standard of First Amendment review that would be applied to such regulation.

We had written about an earlier decision in this case here and here.  The case arose when a public television operator in the San Francisco area, Minority Television Project, Inc., was fined by the FCC for having run promotional ads for commercial and political advertisers, and decided to fight that ban in court.  A panel of the Court of Appeals determined that the fine was appropriate for running commercials for for-profit companies, but unexpectedly threw out the Section 399b restriction on ads on political or controversial issues, finding that the public good of speech on these topics outweighed the government’s interest in fostering public broadcasting.
Continue Reading Court of Appeals Upholds Communications Act Ban on Commercial and Political Advertising on Public TV Stations – Significant Analysis of the Standards for First Amendment Review of all Broadcast Regulation

The Communications Act’s ban on noncommercial broadcast stations running political and issue advertising was struck down as unconstitutional by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  While the Court upheld the prohibition on commercial advertising for products and services, the majority of the Court felt that the ban on political advertising could not be justified.  Bob Corn-Revere of Davis Wright Tremaine’s DC office, who is quite experienced in First Amendment litigation and is a frequent speaker and author on these issues, offers this summary of the constitutional issues raised by this case:


A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Communications Act provisions that ban political and issue advertising on public broadcasting stations violate the First Amendment.  The court left intact another provision that prohibits commercial advertising on public stations.  The majority opinion in Minority Television Project, Inc. v. FCC, written by Judge Carlos Bea, reasoned that Congress lacked substantial evidence that the ban on political and issue advertising set forth in 47 U.S.C. § 399b was necessary to serve the government’s purpose of preserving the mission and quality of public broadcasting, and that the statute was not narrowly tailored.  At the same time, the court held that allowing commercial advertising would undermine the purpose of public broadcasting to provide educational and niche programming.

Synthesizing three decades of First Amendment case law, Judge Bea wrote that Congress must have substantial evidence to justify a content-based speech restriction “at the time of the statute’s enactment.”  The evidence must show “that the speech banned by a statute poses a greater threat to the government’s purported interest than the speech permitted by the statute.”  The decision principally relied on FCC v. League of Women Voters, a 1984 Supreme Court case that struck down a similar Communications Act prohibition on editorializing by public broadcast stations.  Judge Bea’s opinion also relied on a 1993 commercial speech case, Cincinnati v. Discovery Network, for “[a]dditional instruction on what narrow tailoring requires.  That case invalidated a municipal ordinance that imposed differential regulation on newsboxes, depending on whether they contained commercial or noncommercial matter.Continue Reading Court of Appeals Strikes Down Communications Act Ban on Political and Issue Advertising on Noncommercial Broadcasting Stations – Analyzing the Issues