Court Upholds Ban on Political Ads on Public Stations

Full court reverses earlier decision

Public TV and radio stations will remain commercial-free, as a federal appeals court has upheld the federal ban on political advertising on such stations.

In an 8-3 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco ruled that the federal ban that prohibited ads for political candidates or public issues paid for by for-profit companies was constitutional.

The Minority Television Project, a nonprofit California corporation that operated public station KMTP-TV in San Francisco brought the case when it was fined $10,000 by the Federal Communications Commission for airing promotional messages from State Farm, Chevrolet and other companies. After paying the fine, the corporation challenged the FCC in court on the grounds that the ban violated the First Amendment.

Though the appeals court agreed with the plaintiff last year in a 2-1 decision, a rehearing of the case before the full court resulted in a different decision. 

"The hallmark of public broadcasting has been a long-standing restriction on paid advertising to minimize commercialization. In a classic case of 'follow the money,' Congress recognized that advertising would change the character of public broadcast programming and undermine the intended distinction between commercial and noncommercial broadcasting," wrote Judge Margaret McKeown for the majority.

Attorneys for Minority Television Project haven't decided whether to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. "We're talking about political speech and issue speech, which is speech of the highest rung, and we're giving it less protection than some forms of commercial speech," said Walter Diercks, a partner with Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke, in a story from Reuters

Even if the Minority Television Project decides to appeal to the Supreme Court, chances are the high court won't take the case, said Andrew Schwartzman, a media and telecommunications attorney. "A decision [like this one] upholding a federal law, in the absence of a circuit conflict, is very unlikely to get Supreme Court attention," Schwartzman said.