Television broadcasters, because they use the public airwaves, are required to have a license from the federal government to have exclusive use of their assigned frequency. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the agency charged with overseeing the broadcast licensees.

While the law explicitly states that a station cannot censor the content of an advertisement run by a candidate (other than to insist it includes sponsorship identification), broadcasters are responsible for selecting the broadcast material that airs on their stations, including non-candidate political advertisements.

Each television station has the legal right and full discretion in deciding whether to run non-candidate advertisements. The station can reject an ad from an outside group based on the ad’s content and the station’s potential liability for defamation. Stations already have processes that they use around consumer product ads. So this is not a new practice. If there are questions, the station goes back to the group that produces the ad and asks them to supply information to verify their claims.

As the Political Broadcasting Guide produced by the media law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP states, “If an ad contains an attack on a candidate that the station knows to be false, or the station is told that the ad is false and the station continues to broadcast the ad and does nothing to investigate whether the ad is in fact false, liability to the station could arise if the claims are in fact false.” …The station must do a reasonable review of an ad – especially if the truth of an ad has been challenged.” (http://www.dwt.com/files/Uploads/Images/PoliticalBroadcastingGuide.pdf) See as well this FCC publication: http://www.fcc.gov/guides/public-and-broadcasting-july-2008.

Any request from any source to purchase ad time dealing with a federal candidate has to be put in the station’s political file, which is open to public inspection. The information about the ad request should contain:

  • The name of the group sponsoring the ad
  • The group’s principal officers or directors
  • Whether the request to buy time was accepted or rejected
  • The class of time purchased
  • The rate charged
  • The name of the candidates the ad refers to
  • The exact time the spots ran

Under current campaign finance laws, all political advertisements from candidates, parties, PACs, Super PACs, interest groups, individuals and others must contain an announcement stating who paid for the material (47 C.F.R. §73.1212(e)).

The FCC expects broadcasters to be responsible to the community they serve and act with reasonable care to ensure that advertisements aired on their stations are not false or misleading.

Recently, the FCC moved to require TV stations in the nation’s top 50 markets that are affiliated with the main networks to put their political file online at the FCC. Those requirements will be applied to other stations in smaller markets in 2014.