FCC Enforcement Monitor ~ August 2020
Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:
- More Stations Settle with FCC Over Political File Violations
- FCC Fines Drone Retailer Nearly $3 Million for Marketing Unauthorized Devices
- California FM Translator Fined for Operating Above Power Limits
Political Ad Troubles Continue: Dozens of Radio Stations Settle With FCC Over Political File Violations
As election season heats up, the FCC remains focused on broadcasters’ Political File recordkeeping. In the past month alone, the Media Bureau has entered into scores of consent decrees with radio broadcasters stemming from violations of the Commission’s Political File rules. This barrage of enforcement actions follows similar settlements reached last month (covered here).
This month’s consent decrees continue to involve obligations under Section 315(e)(1) of the Communications Act, which requires broadcasters to place in their Political File records of requests to purchase political advertising time made: (1) by or on behalf of a candidate for public office (i.e., federal, state, or local candidates); or (2) by a non-candidate third party whose ad communicates a message relating to a “political matter of national importance.” Section 73.1943 of the FCC’s Rules requires stations to upload this documentation “as soon as possible,” which the FCC considers to be “immediately absent unusual circumstances.” The FCC has repeatedly emphasized that these recordkeeping requirements are essential to a candidate’s ability to assert a right to equal time over the airwaves, as well as to keep the electorate informed so that they can evaluate the validity of political messages and hold political interests accountable.
The investigations arose from issues identified in each of the affected stations’ license renewal applications. The license renewal application form requires stations to certify compliance with the FCC’s Public Inspection File rule, and the Political File is part of the Public Inspection File. For stations that were unable to make this certification, further investigations uncovered deficient Political File records in a number of cases.
In particular, FCC staff indicated that failures to timely upload political file materials has been a recurring problem, and that when the rules say that records of a request to purchase airtime must be uploaded to the Public File “as soon as possible,” the FCC interprets that to mean within one business day of the date of the request.
The recent flood of consent decrees has increased awareness of broadcasters’ Political File obligations and has brought recordkeeping and other related compliance issues to the forefront for broadcasters both large and small. While last month saw settlements involving six large radio broadcasters operating roughly 1,900 stations nationwide, recent actions have targeted licensees controlling just a handful of stations.
While the settlements to date have not included monetary payments, by entering into consent decrees, the licensees are now on the hook for additional compliance measures, including preparing and implementing comprehensive compliance plans, along with filing periodic FCC compliance reports.
Political File obligations continue to be some of the most nuanced and complicated rules the FCC enforces, and the FCC’s guidance in this area continues to evolve. Stations are therefore advised to work closely with counsel to understand their obligations and develop procedures to ensure compliance. Additional information on the political broadcasting rules is also available in our Advisory on the subject.
Drone Retailer Hit with Nearly $3 Million Fine for Marketing Unauthorized Devices
The FCC recently issued a $2,861,128 fine against a large online drone retailer for marketing unauthorized drone equipment and failing to fully respond to a Commission request for information in the course of the investigation.
Section 302 of the Communications Act restricts the manufacture, import, sale, or shipment of devices capable of causing harmful interference to radio communications. In addition, under Section 2.803(b) of the FCC’s Rules, devices that emit radiofrequency (RF) energy must first undergo the Commission’s equipment authorization procedures before being marketed for sale in the United States. Such devices must also adhere to strict identification and labeling requirements.
Following several complaints about the company’s marketing of noncompliant RF transmitters intended for use in operating drones, the FCC’s Spectrum Enforcement Division issued a Letter of Inquiry (“LOI”) in January 2016 seeking information and documents related to the allegations. Continue reading →