Reversing a decades-old rule, a federal appeals court said on Thursday that public television and radio stations could not be prohibited from broadcasting paid political advertisements, reports Brian Stelter of the New York Times.
The ruling could prompt some noncommercial stations to start including ads from candidates and political action committees on their broadcasts, just as commercial stations do. Hundreds of millions of dollars are expected to be spent on advertising in the prelude to the elections this fall.
The ruling startled the television industry when it was issued on Thursday, in part because the case before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit initially involved ads bought by corporations, not candidates.
The case dates back a decade, when the Federal Communications Commission fined Minority Television Project, the operator of the San Francisco TV station KMTP, for carrying promotional messages from companies like Chevrolet and State Farm.
According to Judge Carlos T. Bea, who wrote the main opinion on Thursday, Minority argued that a federal statute prohibiting ads on public stations violated the First Amendment “because its restriction on advertising was not narrowly tailored to the government’s interest in preserving the educational programs on public broadcast stations.”
The court said on Thursday that the ban on political ads was unconstitutional, but it upheld the ban on ads for “goods and services by for-profit entities.”
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a senior vice president at the public interest law firm the Media Access Project, said the ban on all such ads had effectively been in place “since the advent of noncommercial broadcasting in the 1940s.”
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