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The Communications Act of 1934 (Act) did not create new private rights. The purpose of the Act was to protect the public interest in communications. By 47 U.S.C.S. § 402(b)(2), Congress gave the right of appeal to persons aggrieved or whose interests are adversely affected by Federal Communications Commission action. But these private litigants have standing only as representatives of the public interest.
The complaints against Intervenor embrace charges of discrimination on racial and religious grounds and of excessive commercials. As the Commission's order indicates, the first complaints go back to 1955 when it was claimed that television station WLBT had deliberately cut off a network program about race relations problems on which the General Counsel of the NAACP was appearing and had flashed on the viewers' screens a "Sorry, Cable Trouble" sign. In 1957 another complaint was made to the Commission that WLBT had presented a program urging the maintenance of racial segregation and had refused requests for time to present the opposing viewpoint. Since then numerous other complaints have been made. When WLBT sought a renewal of its license in 1958, the Commission at first deferred action because of complaints of this character but eventually granted the usual three-year renewal because it found that, while there had been failures to comply with the Fairness Doctrine, the failures were isolated instances of improper behavior and did not warrant denial of WLBT's renewal application. In September 1962, the Commission again received complaints that various Mississippi radio and television stations, including WLBT, had presented programs concerning racial integration in which only one viewpoint was aired. In 1963 the Commission investigated and requested the stations to submit detailed factual reports on their programs dealing with racial issues. On March 3, 1964, while the Commission was considering WLBT's responses, WLBT filed the license renewal application presently under review. The church sought to intervene before the FCC in the renewal of WLBT’s license. The FCC dismissed the church's petition and granted the company a one-year restricted and conditional renewal, as opposed to the usual three-year renewal.
Did the FCC err in dismissing the church’s petition to intervene?
The court reversed, holding that the church had standing to intervene in the renewal. Congress did not have any thought that electrical interference and economic injury were to be the exclusive grounds for standing nor that it intended to limit participation of the listening public to writing letters to the Complaints Division of the Commission. The issue of standing was to be left to the courts. Intervention on behalf of the public was not allowed to press private interests but only to vindicate the broad public interest relating to a licensee's performance of the public trust inherent in every license. The court held that an evidentiary hearing was required in order to resolve the public interest issue. The issues which should have been considered could be resolved only in an evidentiary hearing in which all aspects of the broadcast company's qualifications and performance could be explored.