Orgs ask court to ax FCC's equal-time rules

In the latest round of a 14-year fight, the Radio-Television News Directors Assn. and the National Assn. of Broadcasters have asked a federal appeals court to order the FCC to kill its so-called personal attack and political editorial rules.

In a petition filed Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C., the RTNDA and NAB argued that the Federal Communications Commission has “exhibited ostrich-like behavior” in failing to comply with a previous court ruling ordering the FCC to resolve the long-running debate over the constitutionality of the two rules.

Under the rules in question, TV stations that take an editorial stand on a political candidate or issue are required to give equal time to opposing candidates and viewpoints, or to a response in the case of an on-air personal attack.

The RTNDA and NAB oppose the rules on First Amendment grounds, noting that the issue of personal attacks is covered by defamation law. Moreover, the two groups argue that the equal-time provision for editorials has discouraged many broadcasters from taking a position on controversial issues.

Doctrine leftovers

The rules are the last remnants of the Fairness Doctrine, most of which was repealed by the FCC in 1987. After petitioning the FCC to repeal the editorial/attack rules since 1983, the RTNDA and NAB took the issue to court last year. In February, the appeals court dismissed the RTNDA-NAB petition but ruled that the FCC had to show it was making progress toward resolving the dispute within six months.

On Aug. 11, the FCC issued a statement saying the commission was divided 2-2 on the fate of the rules, adding that it would be unable to break the impasse until three new commissioners and a new chairman are appointed this fall. The RTNDA-NAB petition filed last week urged the court “to put an end to the shell game being played by this agency.”

Said Barbara Cochran, president of the RTNDA: “These rules are outdated vestiges of the Fairness Doctrine. With that having been abolished, there’s no justification for keeping these rules in place.”

An FCC spokesman declined to comment on the matter, saying the commission’s legal staff hadn’t had time to review the latest RTNDA-NAB petition.

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