truthfulness of candidate ad

With the broadcast and cable news (and the monologs of TV talk show hosts) already dominated by discussions of the 2016 elections, broadcasters thoughts may be turning to that election and the expected flood of money that may come into the political process.  We are, after all, only two months away from the first ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire. But dreams of big political spending should not be distracting broadcasters from thinking about their political broadcasting obligations under FCC rules and the Communications Act, and from making plans for compliance with those rules.  I’ve already conducted one seminar on political broadcasting obligations with the head of the FCC’s Office of Political Broadcasting, several months ago, for the Iowa Broadcasters Association, and we will be doing another, a webcast for about 20 state broadcast associations on December 17 (hosted by the Michigan Broadcasters, see their announcement here). Check with your state broadcast association to see if they are participating in the webcast, as we should be covering many of the political broadcasting legal issues of importance to broadcasters.

Stations in Iowa have been receiving buys from Presidential candidates and PACs and other third-party groups since this past summer, and that spending is sure to increase in these last few weeks before the 2016 start of the primaries and caucuses. What should stations in Iowa and in other states be thinking about now to get ready for the 2016 elections?
Continue Reading Political Broadcasting Issues that Radio and TV Stations Should Be Thinking About Now As We Approach a Very Active Election Season

Every election season there is the same refrain from candidates who are attacked in political ads run on broadcast stations – that ad is unfair and the broadcaster who is running it should take it off the air.  Sometime, that request is sent by a lawyer with threats to bring legal actions if the broadcaster does not stop airing the ad.  What is a broadcaster to do when it gets one of these requests to pull a political ad from the air?  While we have written about this issue many times before (see, for instance, our refreshers on the rules with respect to candidate ads, here, and non-candidate, third-party attack ads, here), questions still come up all the time.  Thus, broadcasters need to know the rules so that they don’t pull an ad that they are not allowed to censor under the FCC’s rules, and that they don’t run one for which they could in fact have liability.

The rules are actually fairly simple in concept, and for ads sponsored by candidates themselves, the rules are fairly simple for broadcasters to implement.  It’s very basic – broadcasters can’t censor a candidate ad, so they can’t reject it (or remove it from the air) no matter what its content is.  The FCC has made only one exception to this “no censorship” obligation.  That exception was adopted when Larry Flint was planning to run for Federal elective office and stations feared that he would run sexually explicit campaign ads.  At that time, the FCC adopted a policy that broadcasters need not run an ad that would violate a Federal criminal law (e.g. obscenity).  That is a very narrow decision, as the Courts have even forced the FCC to make stations run without censorship graphic anti-abortion ads with disturbing content, where such ads would not be legally obscene (they might be indecent under FCC rules, and may be disturbing to some, but the airing is not a criminal violation, so the Courts said that they cannot be blocked by a broadcaster).  Because broadcasters have essentially no choice but to run a political ad in the form that the candidate provides it, and cannot reject it based on content, the Supreme Court has recognized an exemption from any broadcaster liability for the content of the ad.  So the candidate who claims that he is libeled or defamed by the political ad needs to seek relief from the candidate who ran the attack ad, not from the station.  But there are some important details that need to be observed to make sure that there is no liability for the broadcaster.
Continue Reading Questions about the Truth of Political Ads, What’s a Broadcaster to Do When a Candidate Complains About an Attack Ad? – The No Censorship Rule for Candidate Ads

Citizens United has led to many third party political ads, which in turn has led to many cease and desist letters to broadcasters and cable operators that they pull those ads. Most concern “false and misleading” statements, which should not be a concern in the political realm. A few concern potential defamation, which may be of concern. Getting substantiation is wise, but in most cases, there is no need to pull the ads in question.
Continue Reading What to Do With Cease and Desist Letters About Political Ads

On May 27, 2010, David Oxenford spoke to the Vermont Association of Broadcasters annual meeting in Montpelier, updating the broadcasters on Washington events of importance, and discussing the FCC’s political broadcasting rules.  A copy of Dave’s PowerPoint on issues of importance to broadcasters will be posted here soon.  Broadcasters may want to refer to Davis Wright Tremaine’s Political Broadcasting Guide for a discussion of the political broadcasting issues that may arise in this election season.  One of the political broadcasting issues that was discussed in detail was the issue of what a station should do when faced with a political ad that comes from a third party, attacking a political candidate, and the candidate tells the station that the ad is untrue and, if it continues to run on the air, it may subject the station to liability.

This issue may be coming up more in the coming months.  The recent Citizens United case signals the potential for more campaign spending by corporations and labor unions. This money would be spent directly by these organizations, not contributed to the candidates, as the case did not loosen the limits on corporate contributions directly to candidate’s campaign committees. Thus, as the ads will not come from candidates, they will not be subject to the “no censorship” rule that applies only to candidate ads. Because the no censorship rules prevent a broadcast station from rejecting a candidate’s ad based on its content, stations are protected from any liability for the content of those candidate ads. In contrast, broadcasters are free to reject ads from corporations, labor unions, or other non-candidate groups. Because they can choose whether or not to accept such ads, they can technically be held liable for the contents of those ads, should the ad be defamatory or otherwise contain legally actionable material. This should not be new to broadcasters as, even before Citizens United, stations were often faced with complaints from candidates about ads from third party interest groups (like the political parties’ campaign committees, or so-called 527 groups like MoveOn.org) that were permitted to advertise even before the recent decision. Most broadcasters want to be able to accept these advocacy ads from non-candidate groups, but they also want to avoid potential liability. What is a station to do when it receives such an ad, or when an ad is already running and a candidate complains about its contents?


Continue Reading David Oxenford Speaks to Vermont Broadcasters – Addresses What to Do When a Station Receives a Complaint about the Truth of a Political Ad