Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Appeals Court Upholds Restrictions on Political Ads on Public Television

The Ninth Circuit earlier this week upheld a congressional ban on paid advertisements for for-profits, issues of public importance or interest, and political candidates.  The 9-2 (or 8-1-1) ruling in Minority Television Project, Inc. v. FEC said that the ban, at 47 U.S.C. Sec. 399b, did not violate the First Amendment.

The ruling is most notable for Chief Judge Kozinski's call for the Supreme Court to reconsider its approach to the First Amendment for broadcast media.  If Chief Judge Kozinski is reading the tea leaves right, this case may just be the vehicle for the Court to change course on its traditional lower-level review (and therefore greater tolerance) for speech restrictions on broadcast media.

The majority applied the traditional intermediate scrutiny test set out in League of Women Voters and ruled that 399b comfortably satisfied it:

We conclude that substantial evidence before Congress supported the conclusion that the advertising prohibited by Section 399b posed a threat to the noncommercial, educational nature of NCE programming and that the additional evidence bears out Congress's predictive judgment in enacting Section 399b.

Op. at 16.  As to fitness:

In contrast [to the statute overturned in League of Women Voters], Section 399b's restrictions are narrowly tailored to the harms Congress sought to prevent.  Having documented the link between advertising and programming, Congress reaffirmed the long-standing ban on advertising on NCE stations, but in a more targeted manner.  In place of the prior absolute ban on promotional content, which swept within its reach a wide range of speech that did not pose a significant risk to public programming, Congress enacted targeted restrictions that leave untouched speech that does not undermine the goals of the statute.  The restrictions leave broadcasters free to air enhanced underwriting, which both the FCC and Congress determined did not pose the same risk to programming as advertisements.  Broadcasters may air any promotional content for which consideration was not receieved.  Finally, the statute permits non-profit advertisements.  As to this latter category, the government offered evidence that non-profit advertisements, which are few in number and perceived by the public as consistent with the mission of public broadcasting, do not pose the same threat as other forms of advertising.

Op. at 26-27.

The court declined the plaintiff-petitioner's invitation to apply strict scrutiny under Citizens United.  The court said that "Citizens United was not about broadcast regulation; it was about the validity of a statute banning political speech by corporations."  Citizens United did not "overrule[] decades of precedent sub silentio--especially given that the Court there expressly overruled two other cases with no mention of League of Women Voters or an intent to change the level of scrutiny for broadcasting."  Op. at 13.

Judge Callahan concurred as to the prohibition against paid advertisements by for-profits, but dissented (for the same reasons as Chief Judge Kozinski) as to the prohibition on ads on issues of public importance and for political candidates.

Chief Judge Kozinski dissented (joined by Judge Noonan) with a full frontal assault on the intermediate scrutiny standard for speech restrictions in broadcast media.  He wrote that the rationale for that standard "no longer carries any force."  He said that intermediate scrutiny was too squishy and was undermined for broadcast media by "intervening developments" in the media.  He pointed to an earlier Ninth Circuit ruling in which the court defied Supreme Court precedent based on changed circumstances, but was nevertheless affirmed by the Supreme Court.  "So I guess the lesson is, we must not get ahead of the Supreme Court--unless we're right." 

He obviously thinks he's right in predicting the downfall of intermediate scrutiny here.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/2013/12/appeals-court-upholds-restrictions-on-political-ads-on-public-television.html

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