The FCC today acted on a reasonable access complaint by Randall Terry against a Washington DC television station, ordering the station to sell commercial time to his campaign as he is on the ballot as a legally qualified candidate for President in the state of West Virginia. The decision was based on the Commission’s finding that a
We recently wrote about candidate ads, and the "no censorship" provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act. Broadcasters can’t censor a "use" by a political candidate (a candidate ad that features his or her recognizable voice or image), and thus the broadcaster is not liable for the content of a candidate’s ad. So no matter what the candidate may say – the broadcaster runs the ad as is. Ads from third parties (PACs, SuperPACs, labor unions, right to life groups and other advocacy organizations) are, however, different. The “no censorship” provisions of the political rules don’t apply, so broadcasters are free to accept or reject third party ads based on the content of the ads. Even though broadcasters can reject political ads that come from third-party groups, they rarely do, and we seemingly see just as many outrageous claims about candidates in third party ads as we see in the candidate ads that can’t be censored. Why don’t broadcasters more aggressively decide which ads are truthful and which are not, and reject those ads that are not accurate?
A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times asks that question, citing a political ad running on a television station which had, in a news segment, determined that the contents of the ad were not true. Why was the ad still running on that very station? I spoke to the author, and was quoted as saying that broadcasters don’t want to act as “gatekeepers.” In more detail, I said that broadcasters don’t want to be in the position of being the arbiter of what ads are "truthful enough" to run and which ones should be rejected. In the political world, the concept of “truth” is often in the eyes of the beholder. Whether a candidate a “big-spending liberal” or not is not a claim that cannot be factually evaluated. Even in cases where the import of specific legislation is involved, or questions of what a piece of legislation accomplishes or the purposes underlying its adoption can be seen by different people in the political world from very different perspectives, making determinations about “truth” very difficult. In the eyes of some, a legislative act may be motivated by a desire to respond to constituent desires, but in the eyes of others that same act may be motivated by caving in to special interests or as part of some vast conspiracy to undermine the American way. In most cases, broadcasters are reluctant to draw lines as to when an ad is truthful enough to run on the air and when it is not – instead leaving the debate over the "truth" to the marketplace of ideas. If someone thinks that an ad is untrue, they can buy their own ad and spell out their position on the issue. (See this article from the Denver Post complementing TV stations on fact-checking and making their results available for the public to check on the veracity of political ads). But does that station need to worry about liability for the third-party ad?
How can political attack ads get away with taking out-of-context statements of the candidates that they are attacking, and twisting these statements to convey meanings that were never intended by the candidate who first uttered the words? And how can political ads take a single line of an incredibly complex piece of legislation and use that legislation to allege that a candidate has violated some core belief that the candidate espouses on the campaign trail? Do stations have liability for these attack ads, and must they react when the candidate being attacked asks that the ad be pulled? In the fourth of our series of political broadcasting refreshers (following those on lowest unit rates, equal opportunities, and reasonable access), we’ll address the question of the no censorship provision of the rules and what rights stations have to deal with the content of political ads.
Starting with the basics, the FCC rules (stemming from Section 315 of the Communications Act) prohibit broadcasters from censoring the content of advertising that is a “use” by a candidate. Essentially, that means that the broadcaster cannot reject an ad that is sponsored by the candidate or the candidate’s official campaign committee, if that ad has the recognizable voice or image of the candidate somewhere in the course of the ad. No matter how outrageous the statement of the candidate may be, the station cannot refuse to run the ad (with the limited instance of ads that are legally obscene or which otherwise may violate some Federal felony statute). So, even if an ad by a candidate may be totally untrue in claims made about the candidate’s opponent, or even if it could give rise to other civil liability (for instance if it is defamatory or a copyright violation), the station cannot refuse to run the ad.
In recent days, we’ve been writing about political broadcasting topics in anticipation of the November election. We provided a refresher on the basics of lowest unit charges on Monday, and equal opportunities on Wednesday. Today, we’ll look at reasonable access – how much time must stations sell to political candidates (or give to them if they would rather meet their obligations through free time, which few stations are willing to do). Reasonable access requires broadcasters to make reasonable amounts of time available to candidates for Federal office – in all classes and dayparts on all commercial broadcast stations (noncommercial stations were exempted by Congress about a decade ago when candidates started to demand free time on these stations). With the expected onslaught of political advertising coming up in most battleground states, stations fearful of having to devote all of their commercial time to election advertising wonder just how much time is reasonable?
The FCC leaves the determination as to what is “reasonable” to the reasonable discretion of the station, as long as access is provided to all classes and dayparts on the station. The discretion, though, is to be exercised in coordination with the political candidates themselves. For Federal candidates, stations should not put up-front limits (e.g. in a political rate card or on a political disclosure statement) as to how many spots they will sell to any Federal candidate in any specified period of time. Instead, stations are supposed to engage in a give and take with the candidate, accessing the candidate’s needs and desires and weighing them against the needs of the station to provide advertising to other clients. After hearing the needs of the candidates, it is up to the station to reach a determination as to what is reasonable. If stations give candidates at least some access to all classes and dayparts on their stations, even if it is not as much as the candidate wants, stations have traditionally been given the benefit of the doubt by the FCC.
Now that we are in the political window, we’re doing a series on the basics of the FCC’s political broadcasting rules. On Monday, we covered lowest unit charges. Today’s topic is equal opportunities. Many think of this as a straight-forward issue – just requiring that you provide equal time to competing candidates. But the nuances are what makes equal opportunities much more complicated.
At its most basic level, stations are supposed to treat competing candidates in the same way. Most people think of the issues arising to the extent that stations need to give time to all candidates for an office when they give any candidate air time. In most cases, the free airtime given by stations is not an issue, as there are many programs and appearances by candidates that are exempt from equal time. For instance, the appearance of a candidate in a regularly scheduled bona fide news or news interview program, or in on-the-spot coverage of a news event, is exempt from equal time. As we’ve written before many times (e.g. here and here), that exemption has been broadened to include any program on a station that is editorially under the control of the station, that does not use time for a partisan purpose (but uses some good faith quasi-journalist or newsworthiness discretion as to who to include in the program), and which regularly covers issues in the station’s service area. The exemption has been interpreted to include programs as diverse as Entertainment Tonight, The Howard Stern Show, and Phil Donahue. For most station, any program that features talk (whether it be a radio morning show or a local TV program), and which from time to time interviews newsmakers, can also interview candidates without having to deal with equal time issues. Thus, concerns about giving free equal time usually only arise when a candidate appears in some scripted entertainment program (like in the days that Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were pulled from TV stations whenever they ran for office), or perhaps in a sports program (though the recent appearances of Presidential candidates in football pre-game shows demonstrates that, even in some sports programs, the interview of a candidate may not give rise to any equal time issue). But there are other places that the equal opportunities doctrine is still important.
Now that the Democratic and Republican conventions are over and the candidates begin the final sprint to the November 6 elections, the political broadcasting season goes into overdrive. Effective last Friday, lowest unit rates are in effect. In this year which will probably break all records for political spending, is your station ready to comply with all of the political rules? We thought that we’d provide a series of articles on some of the basics of the FCC political broadcasting rules, to make sure that your station is prepared to deal with the most common issues that arise in a political season. Today, as the lowest unit charges have just kicked in, we’ll hit some of the common questions that we get about these rates. In coming days, we’ll address other areas of the FCC’s political rules.
Essentially, lowest unit charges guarantee that, in the 45 days before a primary and the 60 days before a general election, candidates get the lowest rate in any class of advertising time for a spot in that class that is then running on the station. Candidates get the benefit of all volume discounts without having to buy in volume – i.e. the candidate gets the same rate for buying one spot as your most favored advertiser gets for buying hundreds of spots of the same class. But there are so many other aspects to the lowest unit rates, and stations need to be sure that they get these rules right.
The Online Public File for television stations is now a reality. While appeals of the imposition of the rules remain pending, both the FCC and the US Court of Appeals denied stays of the August 2 effective date for the new requirements, so full-power and Class A television stations should now be complying with the new obligations to maintain their public files online. The Online Public File is hosted by the FCC, and uses the FCC’s newly created system for uploading, storing and accessing the documents. So far, the system seems to be functioning with a minimum of problems, though one or two glitches have been reported here and there.
Documents that stations file with the FCC are supposed to be uploaded to the Online Public File automatically by the FCC, so individual stations do not need to worry about importing them into the new system. We have heard that this may not have occurred in every instance, so stations should check their files to be sure that the proper uploading has in fact occurred. Other documents will need to be uploaded by the stations themselves, and stations will also be responsible for maintaining and monitoring the file, and deleting documents when their retention is no longer required.
Just what are the requirements for the new online public file? The FCC has put out its own Frequently Asked Questions, available here. There are many other questions that will no doubt arise over time. We have tried to do our own summary of the obligations as we know them in the answers to common questions that we are getting about the obligations under the new rules. Those questions and answers are set out below.
Does a broadcast station need to book a political ad buy for an agency purporting to be representing a candidate, but refusing to reveal who that candidate is? We’ve recently received this question from a number of broadcast stations in a number of states, as agencies seemingly are jockeying to tie up valuable commercial time in advance of what is likely to be a hotly contested election in November. This seems to be happening particularly with stations that have coverage areas that include parts of certain “swing states” in the Presidential election, or in states with crucial Congressional or Senatorial elections. It seems to us that, unless and until you know that there is a real candidate, there is no obligation for a station to book time for a hypothetical candidate or candidate to be named later.
Booking time for an unknown candidate raises numerous issues for a station. How can a station account for the sale of that time in its political file? If it doesn’t know who the candidate is, it can’t place the required information (which includes the candidate’s name) into the political file. Booking time for a political candidate gives rise to equal opportunities obligations, even outside the 45 and 60 days political windows. How can you determine to whom you owe equal time when the station itself doesn’t even know who the candidate is? And, if the agency even refuses to reveal if it is a Federal or state campaign for which it plans to buy time, making time available to an agency on behalf of an unknown candidate that turns out to be a state candidate may cause the station, through the application of equal opportunities, to have to sell time for a race to which it did not intend to provide access, or to open up dayparts to that state race when it did not intend to offer those dayparts to state candidates. In fact, without knowing the candidate, how can the station assess whether the candidate is legally qualified, or that the time is being purchased by an authorized candidate committee?
In recent days we have seen political action committees (PACs) claiming they are "prohibited" from running political ads in primary states due to "new rules" regarding "electioneering communications." As explained below, these claims are incorrect. What they are really doing is trying to avoid the need to reveal the identity of their contributors, following a US District Court decision in March.
Under Federal Election law, an "electioneering communication" is a broadcast, cable or satellite communication that refers to a clearly identified candidate for federal office within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election, targeted to 50,000 or more people in the state or district the candidate seeks to represent. For President and Vice Presidential candidates, an "electioneering communication" is one that can be received by 50,000 or more people within 30 days of a state primary or the nominating convention.
By federal statute, sponsors of "electioneering communications" must disclose the names and addresses of each donor who contributed $1000 or more to the sponsoring organization. This is is the provision that led to the US District Court decision at issue.
At its meeting today, the FCC voted to require that television stations maintain most of their public inspection files online, in a database to be created by the FCC (see the FCC’s Public Notice here). While the details about this obligation have not yet been released, from the comments at the FCC meeting, much is already evident. All TV stations will have to post their files to an online server to be maintained by the FCC. Proposals for new obligations to post information about sponsorship identification and shared services agreements have been dropped, at least for now. Most documents not already online at the FCC will need to be uploaded within 6 months of the rule becoming effective. And, in the most controversial action, broadcaster’s political files will need to be posted to the new online database, though in a process that is to be phased in over time.
The political file obligation will apply at first only to affiliates of the Top 4 TV networks in the Top 50 markets. And only new information for the political file will need to be posted. Information in the file before the effective date of the order apparently will not need to be posted online, at least not initially. The requirement for posting the political file online will be reviewed in a proceeding to begin one year after the effective date of the new rules. As stations outside the Top 50 markets, and other stations in those large markets, will not need to comply with the political file obligations until July 2014, the FCC will be able to reexamine the impact of the disclosure obligations before the compliance obligation for the political file expands to all stations.