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Court: FCC policy vague on TV editorial responses

Commission deadlocked on proposal to erase rules

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission must firm up its policy on the rights of political candidates to respond to on-air editorial comments by TV station employees, a federal court ruled Tuesday.

Technically, the current rule requires stations to give politicians free airtime to respond to on-air editorials. But the regulation has been in limbo for years as FCC commissioners debate the wisdom of the rule. The current commission is divided over whether the rule should be kept or dropped.

Broadcasters complain that the regulation violates their right to free speech. On the books for decades, the “personal attack and political editorial” rules have been the subject of several court battles.

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In its ruling Tuesday the court said that it can’t make a decision on the rules because it is not clear whether the FCC supports its own rules. “Without a clear explanation for the rules, the court is not in a position to review whether they continue to serve the public interest and whether they burden the First Amendment … too severely.”

The five-member FCC currently is deadlocked on a proposal to get rid of the rules. Chairman Bill Kennard has recused himself from voting on the matter because he worked on the issue while a lawyer in private practice.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters and the Radio and Television News Directors Assn. have asked the courts to repeal the rule.

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