A law saying public television stations can’t air political or public-issue ads is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court in California said.
A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based court ruled today in a lawsuit brought by Minority Television Project Inc., a California nonprofit that operates San Francisco Bay area public television station KMTP. The station was fined by the Federal Communications Commission for violating the ban on public stations’ airing of paid ads from corporations.
The station sued the FCC claiming the ban on ads violated its right to free speech. Public TV and radio stations have been barred from airing ads for or against political candidates, ads expressing views on topics of public interest, and ads for products placed by for-profit companies.
The appeals panel decided on a 2-1 vote that the government had no evidence to support its claim that allowing the stations to air public issue and political ads would harm their educational mission.
“If there truly is evidence that broadcast of public issue and political advertisements would cause substantial harm -- that their broadcast would change program content as directly and substantially as would for-profits’ advertising -- Congress could compile a record to show as much and perhaps pass a law restricting such speech,” the panel said.
The court upheld the ban on product ads from for-profit entities.
The FCC referred a request for comment on the ruling to the Justice Department. The agency is reviewing the decision and had no immediate comment, said spokesman Charles Miller in an e-mail.
There was no answer at KMTP’s office in Palo Alto, California.
The case is Minority Television Project Inc. v. FCC, 09-17311, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (San Francisco).