Legal Briefs

Minority Television Project v. FCC

Remember broadcast television? Amid the avalanche of new streaming services, DVRs, and Rokus, not to mention cable TV, some people may have forgotten—or, if they’re under 25, never known—that there are TV shows in the air that can be captured with an antenna. The Supreme Court certainly hasn’t forgotten, given that it maintains an outdated rule that broadcast TV gets less First Amendment protection than cable, video-on-demand, or almost anything else, a rule dating to the 1969 case of Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC. That lower standard of protection comes from the belief that the broadcast-frequency spectrum is scarce, and thus that the Federal Communications Commission is properly charged with licensing the spectrum for the public “interest, convenience, and necessity.” But if newspapers or magazines were similarly licensed, the First Amendment violation would be obvious to all but the most hardened censor. Hence this case: Minority Television Project is an independent, noncommercial license-holding TV station in San Francisco. Unlike most noncommercial license holders, Minority TV receives no PBS money. Because it’s an over-the-air broadcaster, however, it must comply with the restrictions placed on the licenses by Congress and the FCC, including prohibitions on paid commercials and political ads. Minority TV challenged these restrictions as violating the First Amendment. Applying Red Lion lower First Amendment standard, the district court, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and even the en banc Ninth Circuit (11 judges rather than the usual 3) all ruled against Minority TV. On petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court, Minority TV argues that Red Lion’s rationale for reducing broadcasters’ rights is outdated and should be overruled. Cato has filed an amicus brief in support of Minority TV, agreeing that it’s time to give broadcast TV full First Amendment protection. Just as we argued in 2011’s FCC v. Fox Television Stations—where the Court chose to evade the question—it’s time to update our law to fit current realities. The way that people consume information and entertainment has changed dramatically since 1969. Rather than three broadcast networks, we have hundreds of channels of various kinds, and increasingly people are forgoing traditional TV altogether. The FCC can still license broadcasters—that system isn’t going away anytime soon regardless of the next mind-boggling innovation—but the conditions it places on those licenses have to satisfy strict First Amendment scrutiny, especially when they pertain to political speech. The Supreme Court should take this case in order to update its treatment of broadcasters’ speech rights, including a requirement that the government offer a truly compelling justification any time it wants to restrict them.

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