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D.C. Circuit Judge Sets Key Dates In Broadcasters Appeal of 'Political File' Rule

Friday, September 14, 2012

By Paul Barbagallo

The National Association of Broadcasters has until Oct. 4 to outline arguments against a Federal Communications Commission rule requiring TV stations to disclose information online about political ad purchases, a federal judge has ruled (National Association of Broadcasters v. Federal Communications Commission, D.C. Cir., No. 12-1225, 08/27/2012).

According to a scheduling order released by the D.C. Circuit Court, the FCC's brief is due Nov. 19. Six public interest groups that asked the court join the case in support of the FCC must file their brief by Dec. 4. Final briefs are due Jan. 9, 2013.

As of Aug. 2, the top four network-affiliated stations (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) in the top 50 U.S. markets have been required to post their “political files” to an FCC-hosted web site, while the rest of the roughly 1,800 stations in the country have until July 1, 2014 to do so, leaving the ad buys in many areas of swing states offline during the current election season.

In appealing the rule, the broadcasters say the Federal Election Commission, not the FCC, should be the “central online repository” for such data, which is already available to the public in hard copy at each TV station's local office, but time-consuming and cumbersome to access.

Under Section 315 of the Communications Act, as amended by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, broadcasters' “political files”--as they are known in the statute--must reflect all requests “made by or on behalf of a legally qualified candidate for public office” or that “communicates messages relating to any political matter of national importance, including a legally qualified candidate, any election to federal office, or a national legislative issue of public importance.”

The political file also reveals how the television station responded to such requests--if a request was granted and, if so, the schedule of the times purchased, the times that the spots actually aired, the rates charged, the “classes” of time purchased, and whether a station granted any free time to a candidate.

In a minor victory for the FCC, the D.C. Circuit denied an emergency motion July 27 by the NAB for a stay of the rule, setting the stage for a protracted legal battle.

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