Campaign Legal Center Wants FCC to Insure Access to Airwaves by Candidates

In advance of Tuesday's (Feb. 2) hearing on the Supreme
Court's decision in the Citizen's United vs. FEC case, the Campaign Legal Center
has recommended some legislative responses, including getting the FCC to insure
access to airwaves by candidates as part of the public interest obligations of
the digital age.

The 10 a.m. hearing is in the Senate Rules Committee, which
is chaired by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), who was fiercely critical of the
decision two weeks ago in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and
unions can use direct treasury funds to pay for campaign ads on cable,
broadcast or satellite.

In a letter to Schumer, the group, which supported the
Federal Election Commission (FEC) with two amicus briefs, said it was critical
that Congress move swiftly to "mitigate the damage."

Among its suggestions are to strengthen the definition of
coordinated vs. independent expenditures and give candidates more access to the
"publicly-owned airwaves" by making the lowest unit rate provision

The letter did not come right out and say the government
should require broadcasters to sell spots that can't be preempted at the lowest
unit rate that could be prempted-at which it must now sell campaign spot time
to candidates.  It also didn't say that
the government should make broadcasters provide free airtime, but it raised
both those issues.

"Over time, the statute that requires broadcasters to
provide candidates the opportunity to purchase time at the lowest unit rate
(also called lowest unit charge) has become severely weakened," the group
wrote. "Air time sold at the lowest unit rate is generally pre-emptible,
thus forcing candidates to buy the more expensive, non-pre-emptible time to
ensure they reach the targeted demographic.  A new statute should ensure
that once again the lowest unit rates for candidates are meaningful."

And while not mentioning free time, the group said that
"the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should, as part of their
on-going proceedings on public interest obligations of digital broadcasters, also
look at ways to ensure that candidates have access to the publicly-owned
airwaves so their messages are not drowned out by a political cacophony among
many special interest players."

Among the other suggestions are revising the statute on
electioneering communications that requires disclosure only under certain
conditions: a clearly identified candidate, only if aired 30 or 60 days before
an election or primary. "Any electioneering communication should be
disclosed whenever it occurs."

It did not specify what "meaningful" means, but
pointed out that currently broadcasters must make time available to political
candidates at the lowest unit rate, but that those spots are preemptible. They
also suggest the government provide vouchers to match small-dollar donations so
that money can be leveraged toward more spots.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.