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Who Would You Trust To Determine When Political Speech Is Fair And Accurate?

By Author: Arsenalo
Total Articles: 116

Even if a station manager knows that an ad by a federal candidate is unfair, factually inaccurate, or offensive to part of the community, the ad must be aired. The need for the protection was evident in the early days of radio, when station owners simply refused all ads by candidates they personally opposed. Who would you trust to determine when political speech is fair and accurate? In essence, the FCC and the courts have answered, "In an open marketplace of ideas, we trust the public." That protection does not extend to PAC ads, however, or to issue advocacy advertising.

The results seem ironic to some. Whereas the stations and networks police product ads vigilantly, political ads by candidates are untouched. If an ad says that an aspirin reduces headache pain more quickly than its competitors, the viewer can fairly assume that the claim was not fabricated in a Madison Tag Heuer Carrera Replica Avenue back room. And if the accuracy of a product ad is questioned, the Federal Trade Commission can look into it, requiring corrective advertising if needed.

Not so with political ads. Thus, for example, a candidate's political ad can claim to be showing a "fetus" or "child" aborted in the third trimester when what is in fact being shown is a child stillborn during that period. How would a viewer know? If the press is doing its job, as newspapers around the country increasingly are, an "ad watch" will detail the facts. When the press is asleep at the switch, as it largely was until 1989, the voter must either turn investigative reporter or fall back on a lifetime's worth of judgment calls.

The courts have also held that candidates have a right to access. "It is the purpose of the First Amendment," wrote the U.S. Supreme Court in the famous Red Lion case, "to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it is by the Government itself or a private licensee." Section 312(a)(7) of the Communications Act of 1934, added by Congress in 1972, states that "the Commission may revoke any station license or construction permit. . . for willful or repeated failure to allow reasonable access to or permit the purchase of reasonable amounts of time for the use of a broadcasting station by a legally qualified candidate for Federal elective office on behalf of his candidacy." It is important to note that this right to access applies only to candidates for federal office, that is, those running for the House and Senate of the United States and for the presidency. It does not ensure access for those running for governor, county commissioner, or mayor.

The access requirement has other exemptions as well. It applies to broadcast net-works, not cable, and it does not bar stations from Tag Heuer Replica refusing to sell political ad time during newscasts. Candidates do have a right to access to time adjacent to news (news adjacencies) if advertising time is sold to product advertisers for placement there.

The protections afforded to broadcast political speech have broadened the latitude of discourse in ways that have variously offended liberals and conservatives. In 1972, the FCC protected the right of J. B. Stoner, a state office seeker in Georgia, to say in an ad that "[t]he main reason why niggers want integration is because niggers want our white women." Only a clear and present danger of imminent violence would justify tampering with political speech, reasoned the commission. The ruling was justified by the guarantee of free speech even for claims that are abhorrent.

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