Law School Case Brief
Columbia Broad. Sys., Inc. v. Democratic Nat'l Comm. - 412 U.S. 94, 93 S. Ct. 2080 (1973)
By the Federal Communications Act of 1934, 47 U.S.C.S. § 151 et seq., Congress intended to permit private broadcasting to develop with the widest journalistic freedom consistent with its public obligations. Only when the interests of the public are found to outweigh the private journalistic interests of the broadcasters will government power be asserted within the framework of the Act.
The Federal Communications Commission, in separate decisions, rejected the contentions that the general policy of certain radio and television broadcast licensees of not selling any editorial advertising time to individuals or groups wishing to speak out on public issues violated the Federal Communications Act of 1934 (47 USCS 151 et seq.) and the First Amendment, such contentions having been asserted in actions instituted by a national organization of businessmen opposed to United States involvement in Vietnam, and by the Democratic National Committee. The complainants had argued unsuccessfully that responsible individuals and groups had a right to purchase advertising time to comment on public issues without regard to whether the broadcaster had complied with the Commission's "fairness doctrine" requiring that a broadcaster provide adequate coverage of public issues, fairly reflecting differing viewpoints. The court of appeals, on consolidated appeals, reversed the Commission, holding that a broadcaster's fixed policy of refusing paid editorial advertisements violated the First Amendment, at least when other sorts of paid commercial announcements were accepted, and the cases were remanded to the Commission to develop regulations governing the airing of editorial advertisements.
Did the general policy of certain radio and television broadcast licensees of not selling any editorial advertising time to individuals or groups wishing to speak out on public issues violate the Federal Communications Act of 1934 and the First Amendment?
The Court found that it would be anomalous for the Court to hold, in the name of promoting the constitutional guarantees of free expression, that the day-to-day editorial decisions of broadcast licensees were subject to the kind of restraints urged by respondents. The Court afforded great weight to the legislative and administrative history of the broadcast system and noted that every licensee was already held accountable for the totality of its performance of public interest obligations. The Court concluded that the policies complained of did not constitute governmental action violative of U.S. Const. amend. I. The Court also determined there was no "discrimination" against controversial speech in the case. Because the Commission was actively engaged in examining the Fairness Doctrine, the Court held that courts should not freeze the necessarily dynamic process into a constitutional holding.
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