(From Reuters)--Reversing a decades-old rule, a federal appeals court said on Thursday that public television and radio stations could not be prohibited from broadcasting paid political ads. The ruling could prompt some noncommercial stations to start including ads from candidates and political action committees on their broadcasts, just as commercial stations do. Hundreds of millions of dollars are expected to be spent on advertising in the prelude to the elections this fall.
The decision startled the television industry when it was issued on Thursday, in part because the case before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit initially involved ads bought by corporations, not candidates.
In a 2-1 ruling, the appeals court argued that a law banning such advertisements violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by placing too great a restriction on speech without serving a substantial government interest.
“That is the kind of picking-and-choosing among different types of speech that Congress may not do, absent evidence to show that Congress’s favoritism is necessary to serve its substantial interest,” Judge Carlos T. Bea wrote.
The Minority Television Project, a nonprofit that runs KMTP-TV in San Francisco, challenged the law as unconstitutional after it was fined by the Federal Communications Commission for running paid ads from for-profit companies.
The court ruled that such ads can still be prohibited, but that political and public issue ads cannot. It said there is no evidence that political and public issues ads are more harmful than ads for goods and services by non-profits.
“Public issue and political advertisements pose no threat of ‘commercialization,’” Bea wrote. “By definition, such advertisements do not encourage viewers to buy commercial goods and services. A ban on such advertising therefore cannot be narrowly tailored to serve the interest of preventing the ‘commercialization’ of broadcasting.”