Public broadcasters may carry political ads, appeals court rules

Public radio and television stations may no longer be a safe haven from political advertising.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco threw out a federal statute that prohibited public radio and television stations from accepting political advertisements. The 2-1 decision Thursday kept intact rules banning advertising for for-profit entities on public stations.

Some media advocacy groups blasted the ruling, concerned that the stations will become another platform for political attack ads.

“Polluting public broadcasting with misleading and negative political ads is not in keeping with the original vision of noncommercial broadcasting,” said Craig Aaron, president and chief executive of Free Press. “At a time when people are turning to public broadcasting to get away from the flood of nasty attack ads, viewers don’t want to see ‘Sesame Street’ being brought to them by shadowy super PACs.

The Justice Department said it was reviewing the decision but would not say whether it would appeal.

If nonprofit stations accepted political ads, it could be bad for the commercial stations that count on political advertising as a big moneymaker during election years.

Commercials were banned on public broadcasting stations because the government didn’t want concern for ratings and advertising revenue to influence programming decisions at stations whose mandate is to serve the public with news and educational material.

Judge Carlos Bea, writing for the panel’s majority, found no evidence to support Congress’ “specific determination that public issue and political advertisements impact the programming decisions of public broadcast stations to a degree that justifies the comprehensive advertising restriction at issue here.”

In dissent, Judge Richard Paez argued that Congress intended to shield public programming from “special interests,” and that political ads “run directly counter to Congress’ interest in barring political interest groups (and their advertising dollars) from affecting programming decisions.”

The ruling was in response to a suit filed by KMTP-TV, a noncommercial television station in San Francisco. KMTP wanted to have the rules tossed on First Amendment grounds. The station had been fined by the Federal Communications Commission for accepting paid advertising from for-profit companies.


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