Political Broadcast Rules & Legal Doctrines
Broadcast media can play a huge role in the modern political process, influencing elections and public perception of political figures. Under the equal-time doctrine, a broadcast station that allows a legally qualified candidate for public office to use its facilities for their campaign must grant an equal opportunity to each other candidate for the same office to use its facilities. This is because candidates can reach a far broader audience through public media than through more traditional forms of campaigning. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also imposes an equal-rate rule. This requires broadcast stations to charge each candidate in an election the lowest unit charge that commercial advertisers must pay for similar time.
The equal-time doctrine does not require broadcast stations to provide equal time to each candidate regarding ads or broadcasts on their behalf in which they do not appear. However, the quasi-equal opportunity doctrine applies to representatives for candidates who appear on broadcast stations. If a group that supports a candidate arranges for broadcast time during a campaign, the broadcast station must allow groups that support any opposing candidates to arrange for similar broadcast time.
Endorsements by Broadcast Stations
Often, a broadcast station chooses to endorse a political candidate, aiming to influence its audience. These endorsements can be powerful because audiences typically trust media outlets that they have grown accustomed to following. A broadcast station must notify any candidate opposing the endorsed candidate within 24 hours of the date and time of the endorsement message. The opponent must receive a script or tape (video or audio) of the endorsement message and must receive a reasonable opportunity to respond. If the broadcast station releases its endorsement message within 72 hours before the election, they must give the script or tape to the opponent long enough before the message is broadcast for the opponent to be able to reply.
Similar rules do not apply to positions taken by broadcast stations on other public issues. For example, a broadcast station does not need to give a reasonable opportunity to respond to groups that oppose its message on how public funds should be allocated.
Personal Attacks During Broadcasts on Public Issues
The personal attack rule applies to situations in which the honesty, character, or integrity of a certain identified individual or group is attacked during a broadcast on a controversial public issue. Within one week after this happens, the broadcast station must notify the target of the attack about the broadcast, give them a script or tape of the incident, and allow them a reasonable opportunity to reply through the broadcast station facilities. The target of the attack has a right to personally appear to clear their name. Significantly, several types of targets and attacks are excluded from the personal attack rule, including:
- Foreign individuals or groups
- Attacks by candidates, representatives of candidates, or people associated with them
- Attacks during on-air coverage of news events, news interviews, or newscasts
This rule stemmed from the fairness doctrine, which was discarded in the 1980s. Under the fairness doctrine, the FCC had required broadcast stations to offer reasonable opportunities for discussions of opposing views on controversial public issues. The agency eventually decided that this was an unconstitutional restriction on speech.
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