Facts of the Case:
The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) fairness doctrine requires radio and television broadcasters to present a balanced and fair discussion of public issues on the airwaves. The doctrine is composed of two primary requirements concerning personal attacks in the context of public issue debates and political editorializing. The FCC conditioned its renewal of broadcast licenses on compliance with its regulations. Red Lion Broadcasting challenged the application of the fairness doctrine with respect to a particular broadcast. In a companion case (United States v. Radio Television News Directors Association (RTNDA)), the fairness doctrine's requirements concerning any broadcast were challenged.
Do the FCC's fairness doctrine regulations, concerning personal attacks made in the context of public issue debates and political editorializing, violate the First Amendment's freedom of speech guarantees?
In a unanimous decision, the Court held that the fairness doctrine was consistent with the First Amendment. Writing for the Court, Justice White argued that spectrum scarcity made it "idle to posit an unabridgeable First Amendment right to broadcast comparable to the right of every individual to speak, write, or publish." The Court held that the FCC's fairness doctrine regulations enhanced rather than infringed the freedoms of speech protected under the First Amendment. With respect to the regulation of personal attacks made in the context of public issue debates, the FCC's requirement that the subject of the attack be provided with a tape, transcript, or broadcast summary, as well as an opportunity to respond without having to prove an inability to pay for the "air-time," insured a balanced and open discussion of contested issues. The requirement that political editorializing be presented for and against both sides of the debated issues also contributed to the balanced discussion of public concerns.
Decision: 7 votes for , 0 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Amendment 1: Speech, Press, and Assembly
Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission, 395 U.S. 367 (1969), established the doctrine that broadcast television stations (and by logical extension, radio stations) are full First Amendment speakers whose editorial speech could not be regulated absent good reason. However, because they were granted government licenses on a scarce radio spectrum, they could be regulated to preserve openness in covering news by the FCC.
The FCC by administrative rulemaking had a requirement that discussion of public issues be presented on broadcast stations, and that each side of those issues must be given fair coverage. 395 U.S. 367, 369. As a result the FCC added an "equal time rule" and a "response to personal attack" rule. Red Lion Broadcasting Co. challenged these rules as unconstitutionally infringing on the speech of the station's editorial judgment. Justice Byron White, writing for the majority explained, the FCC has included among the conditions of the Red Lion license itself the requirement that operation of the station be carried out in the public interest. Id. at 380.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has for many years imposed on broadcasters a "fairness doctrine," requiring that public issues be presented by broadcasters and that each side of those issues be given fair coverage. In No. 2, the FCC declared that petitioner Red Lion Broadcasting Co. had failed to meet its obligation under the fairness doctrine when it carried a program which constituted a personal attack on one Cook [journalist Fred J. Cook], and ordered it to send a transcript of the broadcast to Cook and provide reply time, whether or not Cook would pay for it. The Court of Appeals upheld the FCC's position. After the commencement of the Red Lion litigation the FCC began a rule-making proceeding to make the personal attack aspect of the fairness doctrine more precise and more readily enforceable, and to specify its rules relating to political editorials. The rules, as adopted and amended, were held unconstitutional by the Court of Appeals in RTNDA (No. 717), as abridging the freedoms of speech and press.
Held: 1. The history of the fairness doctrine and of related legislation shows that the FCC's action in the Red Lion case did not exceed its authority, and that in adopting the new regulations the FCC was implementing congressional policy. Pp. 375-386.
(a) The fairness doctrine began shortly after the Federal Radio Commission was established to allocate frequencies among competing applicant in the public interest, and insofar as there is an affirmative obligation of the broadcaster to see that both sides are presented, the personal attack doctrine and regulations do not differ from the fairness doctrine. Pp. 375-379.
(b) The FCC's statutory mandate to see that broadcasters operate in the public interest and Congress' reaffirmation, in the 1959 amendment to 315 of the Communications Act, of the FCC's view that the fairness doctrine inhered in the public interest standard, support the conclusion that the doctrine and its component personal attack and political editorializing regulations are a legitimate exercise of congressionally delegated authority. Pp. 379-386.
2. The fairness doctrine and its specific manifestations in the personal attack and political editorial rules do not violate the First Amendment. Pp. 386-401.
(a) The First Amendment is relevant to public broadcasting, but it is the right of the viewing and listening public, and not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount. Pp. 386-390.
(b) The First Amendment does not protect private censorship by broadcasters who are licensed by the Government to use a scarce resource which is denied to others. Pp. 390-392.
(c) The danger that licensees will eliminate coverage of controversial issues as a result of the personal attack and political editorial rules is at best speculative, and, in any event, the FCC has authority to guard against this danger. Pp. 392-395.
(d) There was nothing vague about the FCC's specific ruling in the Red Lion case and the regulations at issue in No. 717 could be employed in precisely the same way as the fairness doctrine in Red Lion. It is not necessary to decide every aspect of the fairness doctrine to decide these cases. Problems involving more extreme applications or more difficult constitutional questions will be dealt with if and when they arise. Pp. 395-396.
(e) It has not been shown that the scarcity of broadcast frequencies, which impelled governmental regulation, is entirely a thing of the past, as new uses for the frequency spectrum have kept pace with improved technology and more efficient utilization of that spectrum. Pp. 396-400.
No. 2, 127 U.S. App. D.C. 129, 381 F.2d 908, affirmed; No. 717, 400 F.2d 1002, reversed and remanded