In a Consent Decree released the day after Thanksgiving, the FCC agreed to accept a payment of a $35,000 penalty from a former television licensee for recording two telephone conversations for inclusion in a newscast, where the station called an outside party and recorded those conversations for inclusion in the newscast – before getting permission to do the recording.  The licensee also apparently did not fully respond to FCC inquiries about the facts of the case, leading to the $35,000 fine.  The FCC noted that the licensee had already sold the station, and was holding this money in a post-closing escrow account to be used to satisfy any fines that might arise from this conduct.

The decision is significant for several reasons.  First, it is couched in terms of privacy regulation, with a discussion of the importance of privacy regulation to the FCC in the opening paragraph (see the Public Notice that accompanied the release of the Consent Decree).  Recently, the FCC issued huge fines to independent telephone companies for not properly securing customer information – indicating a new emphasis on privacy regulation by the FCC.  Couching Friday’s consent decree in those terms indicates that privacy issues are now a high priority for the FCC.  As we have written before, privacy is a subject of interest to many other government agencies, and the recent interest of the FCC in this issue promises one more place where businesses can look for trouble should they respect the privacy of those with whom they interact, or should they not secure private information about their customers.
Continue Reading $35,000 FCC Fine for TV Station that Tapes Telephone Conversations for News Broadcast Without Prior Permission

Two FCC cases were released last week fining broadcasters for violations of the FCC rule against broadcasting a telephone call (or recording a call for broadcast purposes) without first obtaining the permission of the person at the other end of the call.  In one case, a licensee was fined $16,000 for phoning a woman, pretending to be a hospital calling with news that her husband had been in a motorcycle accident and had died.  The FCC refused to reduce or eliminate the fine because the call was made by an independent contractor, as the Commission found that the contractor had been hired to provide recorded "bits" for the station, and was thus not acting outside of any limits set by the licensee.  The decision also made clear that the violation occurs as soon as the person at the other end says "hello", if a recorder is running, even if the person being recorded subsequently consents to the broadcast of the call.

The size of the fine may seem surprising, but the Commission’s staff found $16,000 to be appropriate due to the fact that the same licensee had just recently been fined for a similar offense.  In another case released the same day, the fine was "only" $4000.  Here, the call was made to airport officials in the context of asking these officials questions about a local controversy.  The licensee raised a host of defenses – all of which were rejected.  First, the FCC would not eliminate the fine based on the fact that the station employee making the call had immediately identified himself as being from the station.  The licensee argued that, as the caller had identified himself as being from the station, the recipients of the calls should have known that they were on the air, and had thus implicitly consented to being broadcast as they kept talking.  The FCC rejected this argument for two reasons.  As the call was immediately put on the air, the decision found that once the "hello" was broadcast without prior permission, the station had violated the rules.  Moreover, the exception in Section 73.1206 (the rule that bans the broadcast of phone calls without permission) that allows calls to be broadcast where the person on the call can reasonably be expected to know that the call will be broadcast applies only to situations where the caller "originates the call" to the station – calling the station to be put on a program (like a talk show) that they know or should anticipate will be broadcast. 


Continue Reading $16,000 Fine For Recording Telephone Conversation for Broadcast Without Prior Permission – No Excuse Because Call Made By Independent Contractor, By Subsequent Approval, or By the First Amendment

The FCC today issued two fines to stations who violated the FCC’s rule against airing phone calls for which permission had not been received before the call was either taped for broadcast or aired live.  We’ve written about other fines for the violation of this rule, Section 73.1206, many times (see here, here, and here).  What was interesting about the new cases is that they made clear that a station needs to get permission to record or broadcast the phone call even before the person at the other end of the line says "hello."  

In one case, the station was broadcasting using a tape delay.  The station placed a call to a local restaurant and, when the person at the other end of the line said hello, the station DJ informed the restaurant employee that he was being broadcast and asked if that was OK.  The person responded "yep."  But he changed his mind later in the call.  The station claimed that, had the person not given permission, the tape delay would have allowed the call to be dumped but, as permission was given, the station continued to run with the conversation on the air. The FCC found that insufficient, as permission had not been received prior to the person saying hello.  The second case was much more straightforward – a wake up call by the station to a randomly selected phone number.  While the station immediately informed the person who answered the phone that the call was on the air – that did not happen until the recipient of the call had already said hello.  In the first case, the fine was $6000 – in the second, $3200.


Continue Reading More Fines for Stations That Broadcast Telephone Conversations Without Prior Permission – Permission After “Hello” Is Too Late