According to Politico, Ted Cruz’ campaign has demanded that TV stations pull certain PAC ads which he claims distort his voting record on immigration issues. This kind of claim from a political candidate about the unfairness of attack ads is common. Here, Cruz’ representatives apparently don’t threaten lawsuits against the stations for running the ads, but suggest that it is a violation of the stations’ FCC obligations to operate in the public interest to continue to run the ads. What is a station to do when such a claim is received?

We have written many times about this issue. Much depends on who is sponsoring the attack ad. If the ad is sponsored by the authorized campaign committee of another candidate, and features the voice or image of the sponsoring candidate, the station cannot do anything. As we wrote in detail here, a station cannot censor a candidate ad. Once it has agreed to sell time to a political candidate or his or her authorized campaign committee, the station must run the ad as delivered by the candidate without edit (with the very limited exception of being able to add a sponsorship identification if one is missing, or when running the ad would constitute a felony, e.g. running a spot that is legally obscene – not just indecent but obscene, meaning that it has no redeeming social significance). Because the station is required to run the ad as delivered by the candidate, the station has no liability for the content of the ad. So, if the candidate being attacked complains, the station can do nothing to edit, censor or pull the attacking candidate’s ad without violating the “no censorship” provisions of Section 315 of the Communications Act. The candidate being attacked has a remedy against the ad’s sponsor, not against the station. Third party ads, however, are different.
Continue Reading Ted Cruz Demands Takedown of PAC Ad Attacking His Voting Record – Issues that Broadcast Stations Need to Consider When Threatened by Candidate Wanting an Ad Pulled

The FCC yesterday issued a Declaratory Ruling at the request of the producers of a new syndicated Crime Watch Daily TV show, a program that will give a daily rundown of crime stories including ongoing court trials from around the nation, declaring that the program would not give rise to equal opportunities claims from political candidates. As the producers expected that political candidates would be featured in the program’s daily coverage of crime news (e.g. sheriffs or district attorneys who may be running for reelection in local elections), they wanted to be sure that competing candidates would not have grounds to request equal time from stations carrying the program – which obviously would severely limit the attractiveness of the program. The FCC looked at the description of the nature of the program – where the producer is making editorial decisions about who will appear on the program based on determinations of newsworthiness in the exercise of their journalistic judgment, not based on an attempt to favor or highlight any political candidate. Based on these representations, the FCC concluded that the show was exempt from the equal opportunities obligations of Section 315(a) of the Communications Act.

We have written about the equal opportunities rules (or what many refer to as “equal time”) many times before (see, for instance, our article here). When a candidate makes a “use” of a broadcast station, opposing candidates are entitled to equal time on the station, if they request that equal time within 7 days. If the first candidate did not pay for that airtime, the second candidate gets the time for free. So, if an on-air employee of a station decides to run for public office, once that employee becomes a legally qualified candidate by filing the necessary paperwork for a place on the ballot or taking the steps to launch a write-in campaign, if the employee stays on the air, opposing candidates can request, and are entitled to, equal time on the station. And these opposing candidates don’t need to deliver the weather report or introduce the next song as the on-air employee may have been doing. Instead, the opposing candidates can use the time to promote their campaign, even if the on-air employee never mentioned his or her candidacy on the air (see our article on on-air employees running for office, here). However, where the candidate appears on the air as the subject of a news report, there is no “use” of the station under FCC rules and policies, and thus no need to give equal time.
Continue Reading TV Crime Watch Show is Bona Fide News Program Exempt from Equal Opportunities Requests from Political Candidates – Reviewing the Equal Time Rule

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune demonstrates that the FCC’s Equal Opportunities requirements, as embodied in Section 315 of the Communications Act, apply to candidates for state and local elective office as well as to those for Federal office. We have written before about this obligation of stations to provide Equal Opportunities (sometimes referred to as “Equal Time“) to all competing candidates for the same office, yet many stations seem to be confused about their obligations as they apply to state and local political races – such as a race for mayor. While the reasonable access provisions of the FCC rules (which we summarized here), require that stations must make available time to Federal candidates (and Federal candidates only) if they request advertising time for their campaigns, if stations voluntarily make time available to a state or local candidate, then equal opportunities apply to all of the competing candidates in that same state or local race. In the case written about in the Tribune, a former Chicago Bear, an on-air host of a sports program, was forced off the air when he decided to run for mayor of a Chicago suburb and his opponent indicated that he would seek equal time from the station if the candidate continued to do his program.

This case also demonstrates several other aspects of the political rules. First, the local election is not until April, yet the station recognized that the equal opportunities rule kicks in as soon as you have a legally qualified candidate – one who has filed the necessary paperwork to run for an office. The application of the equal opportunities rule is not limited to the 45 days before a primary or the 60 days before a general election (those windows apply only to the application of the lowest unit charges that have to be made available to candidates – state and local as well as Federal candidates). See our summary of the lowest unit charge obligations here.  Once a candidate is qualified, even outside of the “political window”, equal opportunities apply.


Continue Reading Sportscaster Running for Mayor In Chicago Suburb Taken Off the Air – Illustrating that the Equal Opportunities Rule Applies to State and Local Candidates

In an 11th hour decision released at about 5 PM on the Friday before the Super Bowl,the FCC decided that TV station WMAQ-TV in Chicago was justified in denying Randall Terry’s request to buy advertising time in the Super Bowl.  As we’ve written before, Mr. Terry is claiming that he is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, and as such has a right of reasonable access to broadcast stations, meaning that they must sell him advertising time.  If he had such rights, the stations could not censor the content of the ads that the candidate decided to run (see our article here about the Communications Act’s no censorship rule).  As Mr. Terry has promised to run some very graphic antiabortion ads featuring images of aborted fetuses, many stations were reluctant to run the ads, especially in the Super Bowl when families will be watching the big game.  The FCC decided that WMAQ-TV acted reasonably in denying Mr. Terry time in the Super Bowl for two reasons: (1) he had failed to make a substantial showing of his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in Illinois, and (2) even if he had, he had no right to demand that his ads be placed in the Super Bowl.  Each of these prongs of the decision clarifies some issues in the law of political broadcasting that had been long-debated, but the first part of the decision leaves questions – important questions to which many stations want answers.

The first prong of the decision concluded that WMAQ-TV was justified in determining that Mr. Terry was not a bona fide candidate for the Democratic nomination for President in Illinois as he was not on the ballot there, and had not made a "substantial showing" that he was otherwise a candidate in the state (see our discussion of the requirements to be a legally qualified candidate, here).  The FCC found that the station did not need to be a private investigator and ferret out every instance of campaign activity that Mr. Terry had engaged in within the state to determine if his activity was substantial.  Instead, the station could rely on the information that Terry presented to it when he made his request.  That information essentially amounted to the fact that he had made appearances in two small towns in the state, and had some campaign literature (though there was no evidence that it was ever distributed in Illinois).  Based on those facts, the Commission denied the request – concluding that he had not engaged in campaign activities throughout a substantial portion of the state, as required by prior FCC precedent.  While this may answer the question in this case (and helped to clarify the law as to the showing that write-in candidates need to make before they can demand reasonable access to broadcast stations), it leaves several questions unanswered for stations that have or may receive Mr. Terry’s request for airtime in other states where Mr. Terry is on the ballot.


Continue Reading FCC Decides That Randall Terry Not Entitled to Run Graphic Anti-Abortion TV Ads in the Super Bowl For His “Presidential Campaign” – But Questions Remain

With the Florida broadcast airwaves overrun with political ads in the last few days – the great majority of them attack ads – many ask why do broadcasters keep running those ads?  Of course, there are revenue considerations.  But as the attacks get nastier, and perhaps even go against the interest of the station owners themselves, why do broadcasters keep running these ads?  Often, it’s because broadcasters have to – under the applicable laws.  We’ve seen two stories this week that illustrate that point – one where Gloria Allred, the well-known attorney, has written to a number of television stations asking them to refuse graphic anti-abortion ads to be run during the Super Bowl sponsored by purported Democratic presidential candidate Randall Terry, and a second about an NBC-owned station in Florida apparently continued to run a Mitt Romney ad attacking Newt Gingrich, featuring NBC News footage of an old Tom Brokaw Nightly News report, even after NBC News asked the Romney campaign to stop using the clip.  The NBC station apparently recognized its obligations, while Ms. Allred ignored the station’s obligations under Section 315 of the Communications Act and the FCC’s political broadcasting rules. 

Broadcasters are sometimes in a sticky position with nasty political ads, as by law (Section 315 of the Communications Act) they are not allowed to censor a candidate ad.  What this means is that they cannot reject a candidate ad based on its content, with the possible limited exception of where the ad violates a Federal felony statute like the obscenity laws (though not the indecency rules, which are not felony statutes).  If the ads just violate someone’s property interests, or could give rise to some sort of civil liability (e.g. defamation), as we’ve written before, the broadcaster is immune from liability for running the ad by a candidate or his authorized campaign committee. The broadcaster is also immune from liability from a perceived copyright action like that alleged by NBC.  But that immunity arises only because the station cannot, under law, reject the ad.  So the only remedy for someone objecting to the content of a candidate’s ad is to seek a remedy against the campaign itself, not against any station that runs the campaign’s ad.  (See examples of suits against the candidates, but not the stations, in cases we wrote about here and here)  So, even if the copyright owner who objects to the use of its copyrighted content in an ad owns the TV station, it is still stuck running the ad if the candidate insists.

Similarly, in the case that Ms. Allred complained about – asking stations to pull the graphic anti-abortion ads sponsored by Randall Terry, she posed the wrong question – alleging that the ad would be offensive and inflammatory.  Stations can’t make those judgments about political ads – they have to run them even if they can be upsetting. The FCC has even been told by the Courts that it can’t allow stations to channel upsetting political ads (like those anti-abortion ads that Mr. Terry plans to run), into late night hours.  If a candidate wants to run ads in the middle of the day (or in the middle of children’s programs), a station can warn its audience that the ad may be disturbing and that it is being forced by law to run it, as long as such warnings are done in a neutral fashion, but it must run the ad in the form the candidate created it.  So what should Ms. Allred have argued about the Terry ads?


Continue Reading Why Broadcasters Have To Air Political Attack Ads Even If They Don’t Want To

With the Iowa primary approaching, political ads are increasing on the local Iowa TV stations.  While the national press may have been focused on some of the recent Rick Perry ads about the end of "don’t ask, don’t tell" and its connection to the celebration of Christmas in the public schools, there has been an even more controversial ad running on Iowa TV stations – anti-abortion spots being run by Randall Terry, the head of Operation Rescue, who has announced that he is running for the Democratic nomination for President – challenging President Obama for the privilege of running in next year’s election.  Some of the planned ads have graphic depictions of the results of abortions.  These ads are disturbing to some, and many viewers (and many stations) are concerned and upset about their being broadcast – so why are stations running them?  For the most part, it is based on the requirement of Section 315 of the Communications Act that prohibits a station from censoring an ad from a candidate for public office.  Not only that, but court rulings concerning the reasonable access provisions of the Communcations Act prohibit stations from channeling potentially disturbing ads to later night hours – limiting stations to a pre-ad disclaimer warning viewers of the content to come and advising them that the ad is being aired by a candidate and is not subject to station censorship (stations should work with counsel to use language on such a disclaimer that has been approved by the FCC). 

But there are issues that stations need to explore to prevent everyone with the money to cover an ad from claiming to be a candidate for office and being able to air disturbing images on broadcast stations.  Under the law, a person has no censorship rights for their ads (and reasonable access rights for Federal candidates) only if they can show that they are a "legally qualified candidate."  In most cases, the question as to whether someone is legally qualified is relatively easy.  The station looks at whether the person has the requisite qualifications for the office that they are seeking (age, residency, citizenship, not a felon, etc.), and then looks to see whether they have qualified for a place on the ballot for the upcoming election or primary.  In most cases, qualifying for a place on the ballot is a function of filing certain papers with a state or local election authority, in some places after having received a certain number of signatures on a petition supporting that person.  But once the local election authority receives the papers (and does whatever evaluation may be required), a person is legally qualified and entitled to all the FCC political broadcasting rights of a candidate: equal opportunities, no censorship, reasonable access if they are Federal candidates, and lowest unit rates during the limited LUC windows (45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election).  But, for Presidential candidates, especially in caucus states, and for write-in candidates, there are slightly different rules that are applied, as there is no election authority to certify that the requisite papers have been filed for a place on the ballot.  Instead, in these situations, a person claiming to be a candidate must make a "substantial showing" that he or she is a bona fide candidate – that he has been doing all the things that a candidate for election in the caucus would do. What does that mean?


Continue Reading Graphic Abortion Ads In Iowa By Presidential Candidate – And A Seminar on FCC Political Broadcasting Rules

The FCC issued a declaratory ruling this week finding that Anderson Cooper’s new talk show appeared to be a bona fide news interview program exempt from equal opportunities under the FCC’s political broadcasting rules interpreting the mandate of Section 315 of the Communications Act. This ruling is another in a series of rulings by the FCC making

This past week’s political news seemed to be all about Donald Trump and his possible run for the Presidency – and his plans to announce his intent to run on the season finale of The Apprentice.  When, a week ago, we wrote about the President declaring his candidacy, there was little interest in our post, and there seemed to be little news attention in general to that announcement.  But when Donald Trump started making noise about his possible Presidential run, and his plans to announce his intent on the season finale of The Apprentice in May, our phones started ringing, asking how can he do that?  My partner David Silverman was quoted in a Huffington Post article, while my analysis was misunderstood in a Hollywood Reporter legal blog (see why I was misunderstood below).  But the question remains – can Trump continue on The Apprentice while signaling his interest in running for President?

In fact, there is no FCC rule that prohibits a broadcaster from giving airtime to a political candidate on any kind of program, as long as they are willing to provide equal time to opposing candidates.  There may be other legal issues involved in giving time to a candidate as it may in effect be a deemed a campaign contribution to the candidate (an issue apparently for PACs as well, as explained by that legal scholar Steven Colbert, here), but the FCC’s equal time rules don’t prohibit the appearance of a candidate on an entertainment program, they only demand that the stations that broadcast the program give equal amounts of time to opposing candidates who ask for it – if the opponents ask for it within 7 days of the candidate’s appearance.  And that is often the first issue – will the opposing candidate ask for it?  None of the Republicans asked when cable networks continued to run episodes of Law and Order featuring Fred Thompson, even after Thompson declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination.  Nor did other candidates request time after there was a parade of candidate appearances on Saturday Night Live during the last election (see our post on this pattern of candidates passing on their equal time rights).  But would a Trump declaration of a candidacy on The Apprentice even face that minimal risk?  Probably not.


Continue Reading Donald Trump May Declare Presidential Candidacy on The Apprentice – FCC Legal Issues?

In the waning days before the mid-term election, we have received many questions about the applicability of the political broadcasting rules to state and local candidates.  In particular, we have seen a number of letters from attorneys representing candidates who are running for state and local offices (everything from Governor to county commissioner or school board representative), who claim that an attack by an opposing candidate is unfounded and that a broadcast station must pull that ad from the air.  Just as is the case with Federal candidates, ads by state candidates cannot be censored by a station.  Thus, except in certain very unusual situations (where the language of the ad would violate some Federal criminal statute, e.g. if it is obscene), a station must air the ad as it was created.  It cannot be rejected because the station disagrees with the content or the tone, and it cannot be pulled even if the opposing candidate believes it to be defamatory.  Because the station cannot censor a candidate’s ad, they have no liability for the content of the ad, i.e. they cannot be held responsible for any defamatory content that it may contain, even if they are on notice of that content.  They cannot censor an ad by a candidate or a candidate’s authorized campaign committee – whether that candidate is running for a Federal, state or local office.

Note that, as we have written many times, this is in contrast to those situations where a candidate complains about an attack ad sponsored by a non-candidate group.  In those cases, the station does have the option of whether or not to run the ad (the no censorship provisions of Section 315 of the Communications Act do not apply).  Thus, if the station is on notice that there is potentially defamatory content in an ad, it must do some investigation of that ad, and make an informed decision about whether or not to allow the ad to continue to run.  If it does not investigate, and continues to run an ad that is defamatory after receiving notice of that fact, in some extreme cases, it could face liability for that defamatory content.


Continue Reading Political Broadcasting Reminder – State and Local Candidates Subject to Lowest Unit Charge, No Censorship and Equal Opportunities Rules

While most of the FCC’s political broadcasting rules have remain unchanged for almost 20 years, each year there are a few new wrinkles that arise, and seemingly a few misconceptions that make the rounds among advertising agencies that work with political candidates.  One such misconception that seems to be circulating this year is that an ad for a state or local political candidate does not need to have their voice or picture to be a "use" under FCC rules.  Only "uses" are entitled to lowest unit rates and subject to the no censorship provisions.  For some reason, agencies in several states have tried to convince broadcasters that, as long as a spot has a sponsorship identification at the end (and, for television, a textual sponsorship identification 4% of screen height for 4 seconds), that spot is a "use."  But that is not correct.  A "use" requires that the recognizable voice or picture of a candidate be in the spot – and that is true even for spots for state and local candidates.  Some advertisers may be confused by the change in Federal laws (now itself almost a decade old) that required that Federal candidates identify themselves in their ads and personally state that they approved the message of the ad,  Perhaps some of the advertisers think that, because the law for Federal candidate is so detailed, and because it does not specifically cover state candidates (though several state laws now have imposed the same obligation on state and local candidates in their states), there is no requirement at all for state and local candidates to appear in their ads.  But they are not correct – for a spot to be a use, a candidate him or herself must have a recognizable voice or image in that ad.

While it is not illegal for a station to run a state or local candidate’s ad when the ad does not have a candidates voice in it, there are important ramifications for the station if the spot is not a "use".  First, without the candidate’s voice or picture, the ad is not entitled to lowest unit rates.  There has been some controversy, not settled by the Federal Election Commission and perhaps subject to interpretations under state election commission rules, about whether a station that charges a candidate lowest unit rates for a spot not entitled to such rates may be making a corporate campaign contribution to that candidate, which is prohibited under Federal law and in most states.  Most importantly for the stations, if the spot does not have the candidates voice or picture in it, the spot is not covered by the ‘No censorship" provision of Section 315 of the Communications Act.  That provision prohibits a station from rejecting a candidate’s ad based on its content.  But, because the station can’t reject the ad based on its content, the station has no liability for the contents of the ad.  Conversely, if the ad does not have the appearance by the candidate in it, then the station is free to reject it based on its content, and thus the station could theoretically have liability for the content of the ad.  As we approach a heated election season where stations don’t want the obligation to check the veracity of every claim made by one candidate about an opposing candidate in an attack ad, stations should be careful to insure that spots purchased by candidates are in fact uses, containing the recognizable voice or picture of the candidate – even for state and local candidates. 


Continue Reading Remember that Political Ads By State and Local Candidates Need to Have Candidate’s Recognizable Voice or Picture to Be a Use