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Federal Candidates Have Much to Fear From Randall Terry Ads

If you are a television broadcaster, count yourself fortunate if you have not heard from the ad agency for Randall Terry. In a self-proclaimed effort to exploit the laws requiring broadcasters to give federal candidates guaranteed access to airtime as well as their lowest ad rates, Terry has announced he is running for President and wishes to air anti-abortion ads containing graphic footage of aborted fetuses during Super Bowl coverage and elsewhere.

Stations seeking not to air the ads have been the recipients of angry messages from the Terry campaign arguing that stations have no choice but to carry the ads under federal law, and they are not permitted to modify the ads in any way to delete the graphic content. That would be a generally accurate statement of the law if Terry is indeed a qualified “bona fide” candidate for President. The Terry campaign has already lodged at least one complaint at the FCC against a Chicago station for refusing to run the ads, and has sent messages to stations threatening a license renewal challenge if they don’t run his ads.

To say the least, this puts stations in an awkward position. If the FCC rules that Terry is a bona fide candidate, then stations that refused to air the ads are in violation of the political ad provisions of the Communications Act. If they air the ads and the FCC rules that Terry is not a bona fide candidate, then the stations are potentially liable for the content of those ads (since the “no censorship” rule on political ads wouldn’t apply). Either way, they risk license renewal challenges, either from Terry or from offended viewers. Even after the FCC rules, it’s a fair bet that the decision will be appealed, meaning that it may be a while before broadcasters have any clarity as to their legal obligations.

What has been absent from the discussion so far, however, is that the issue may loom far larger over other federal candidates than it does over broadcasters. The Communications Act grants federal candidates rights that no commercial advertiser has–a guaranteed right of access to a station’s airtime and, during the 45 days preceding a primary and the 60 days preceding a general election, a guarantee of paying the lowest available rate for ad time. Stated differently, broadcasters are required to air political speech they may disagree with, and to economically contribute to the candidate by selling airtime at prices below what they would be charging other short-term advertisers. An argument can be made that the former violates a broadcaster’s First Amendment rights, and that the latter violates both a broadcaster’s First Amendment rights (by requiring it to subsidize a candidate’s political speech), and its Fifth Amendment rights (via a government “taking” of its airtime and ad revenue).

Because broadcasters have always seen the carriage of candidate ads as part of their civic duty, they have carried them with a smile and not seriously challenged the statute that imposes these obligations. However, episodes like the Terry ads expose what we have always known about these rules, and that is simply the fact that they could easily be gamed. Some of the media have described the Terry ads as attempting to exploit a “loophole” in the law, but that is of course not really accurate, since a loophole suggests the law is working in a way other than intended when in fact, guaranteed carriage and lowest unit charge for bona fide federal candidates is the very purpose of the law.

Given the number of comedians and others over the years that have taken steps to run for President, I am frankly surprised that we have not yet seen the political ad that says “I’m George Smith and I’m running for President. I hope you’ll vote for me, but whether you do or don’t, I think you’ll find that the trip to the voting booth goes well with a nice cold Smith-brand beer.” Such ads could well qualify for guaranteed placement and the lowest possible ad rates.

If broadcasters find themselves increasingly forced to carry and subsidize “candidate” ads that cause their viewers to tune out while the advertiser avoids paying normal ad rates, the unspoken agreement between broadcasters and the federal government to live with the political advertising rules may come to an end, leading to a constitutional challenge of those rules. Sound farfetched? Not really. For decades, the FCC enforced an EEO rule that went beyond what was constitutionally permissible, but the FCC had perfected the art of fining stations an amount large enough to ensure future compliance, but low enough that it wasn’t worth the expense of challenging the rule in court. That “truce” between broadcasters and the FCC ended when the FCC upped the ante and sought to take a station’s license away for alleged EEO rule violations. At that point, our firm was hired to defend the station’s license at hearing. We let both the FCC and the petitioner that had raised the challenge know that the station was ready to vigorously defend its license, and that pursuing the case could well result in a court invalidating the FCC’s decades-old EEO rule. They pursued the case anyway, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit did indeed toss out the EEO rule as unconstitutional.

Broadcasters are now faced with a somewhat similar situation, where their licenses are being threatened because a potential petitioner is arguing that they must forgo their First Amendment right to select their content, and instead air content (at a discount) that they find visually repugnant, regardless of their own political views on the abortion issue. If they are forced to do so, they have a beautiful set of facts with which to challenge the political ad provisions of the Communications Act, potentially resulting in a finding that those provisions are not constitutional in the current media environment, much to the detriment of candidates everywhere.

It is therefore not surprising that steps are being taken to avoid this “high noon” constitutional showdown between broadcasters and the Communications Act. The Democratic National Committee attempted to take some of the pressure off of broadcasters by releasing a letter stating, among other things, that “Mr. Terry’s claims to be a Democratic candidate for President are false. Accordingly, he should not be accorded the benefits of someone conducting a legitimate campaign for public office.” This letter gives the FCC ammunition to support broadcasters that do not wish to air the ads, and it is in no one’s interest to force broadcasters into a corner where challenging the constitutionality of the political rules is their least objectionable option. If that happens, future candidates could well find that they will no longer be “accorded the benefits of someone conducting a legitimate campaign for public office.”