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Court: Public TV Can Run Political Ads

“Downton Abbey,” brought to you by Obama for America.

It’s not so far-fetched following a federal appellate court ruling that public broadcasters should be free to air political and issue ads.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in an opinion issued on Thursday, ruled that the FCC’s restrictions on political and issue ads don’t pass First Amendment muster. But the court let stand the prohibition on traditional commercial advertising.

The court said that “the government cannot point to evidence that its fear of harm to public television would come from allowing stations to issue public issue and political advertisements is ‘real, not merely conjectural,’ much less that portions of the statute which ban such political and public issue advertisements ‘alleviate those harms in a direct and material way,'”

The case was brought by Minority Television Project, a nonprofit that operates KMPT San Francisco. It is licensed as a public broadcast station but does not get funds from the Corp. for Public Broadcasting. In 2002, the FCC fined the station $10,000 for accepting promotional spots from companies such as State Farm, Chevrolet and U-Tron Computers.

The intent of the advertising restrictions, 9th Circuit Judge Carlos Bea noted, is to prevent advertisers from gaining influence over the type of programming, as stations would seek out shows with mass market appeal. But “neither logic nor evidence supports the notion that public issue and political advertisers are likely to encourage public broadcast stations to dilute the kind of noncommercial programming whose maintenance is the substantial interest that would support the advertising bans,” Bea wrote.

Judge John T. Noonan concurred with the opinion, while Judge Richard Paez dissented.

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