Federal Communications Commission v. League of Women Voters of California

Citation82 L.Ed.2d 278,468 U.S. 364,104 S.Ct. 3106
Decision Date02 July 1984
Docket NumberNo. 82-912,82-912
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 (Act) established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a nonprofit corporation, to disburse federal funds to noncommercial television and radio stations in support of station operations and educational programming. Section 399 of the Act forbids any noncommercial educational station that receives a grant from the CPB to "engage in editorializing." Appellees (Pacifica Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that owns and operates several noncommercial educational broadcasting stations that receive grants from the CPB, the League of Women Voters of California, and an individual listener and viewer of public broadcasting) brought an action in Federal District Court challenging the constitutionality of § 399. The District Court granted summary judgment in appellees' favor, holding that § 399 violates the First Amendment.

Held: Section 399's ban on editorializing violates the First Amendment. Pp. 374-402.

(a) Congress, acting pursuant to the Commerce Clause, has power to regulate the use of the broadcast medium. In the exercise of this power, Congress may seek to assure that the public receives through this medium a balanced presentation of information and views on issues of public importance that otherwise might not be addressed if control of the medium were left entirely in the hands of the owners and operators of broadcasting stations. At the same time, since broadcasters are engaged in a vital and independent form of communicative activity, the First Amendment must inform and give shape to the manner in which Congress exercises its regulatory power. Thus, although the broadcasting industry operates under restrictions not imposed upon other media, the thrust of these restrictions has generally been to secure the public's First Amendment interest in receiving a balanced presentation of views on diverse matters of public concern. As a result, the absolute freedom to advocate one's own positions without also presenting opposing viewpoints—a freedom enjoyed, for example, by newspaper publishers—is denied to broadcasters. Such restrictions have been upheld by this Court only when they were narrowly tailored to further a substantial governmental interest, such as ensuring adequate and balanced coverage of public issues. Pp. 374-381.

(b) The restriction imposed by § 399 is specifically directed at a form of speech—the expression of editorial opinions—that lies at the heart of First Amendment protection, and is defined solely on the basis of the content of the suppressed speech. Section 399 singles out noncommercial broadcasters and denies them the right to address their chosen audience on matters of public importance. Pp. 381-384.

(c) Section 399's broad ban on all editorializing by every station that receives CPB funds far exceeds what is necessary to protect against the risk of governmental interference or to prevent the public from assuming that editorials by public broadcasting stations represent the official view of government. The ban impermissibly sweeps within it a wide range of speech by wholly private stations on topics that do not take a directly partisan stand or that have nothing whatever to do with federal, state, or local government. Pp. 386-395.

(d) The patent overinclusiveness and underinclusiveness of § 399's ban also undermines the likelihood of a genuine governmental interest in preventing private groups from propagating their own views via public broadcasting. Section 399 does not prevent the use of noncommercial stations for the presentation of partisan views on controversial matters; instead, it merely bars a station from specifically labeling such issues as its own or those of its management. Pp. 396-399.

(e) Section 399 cannot be justified on the basis of Congress' spending power as simply determining that Congress will not subsidize public broadcasting station editorials. Regan v. Taxation With Representation of Washington, 461 U.S. 540, 103 S.Ct. 1997, 76 L.Ed.2d 129, distinguished. Since a noncommercial educational station that receives only 1% of its income from CPB grants is barred absolutely from editorializing, such a station has no way of limiting the use of its federal funds to noneditorial activities, and, more importantly, it is barred from using even private funds to finance its editorial activity. Pp. 399-401.

547 F.Supp. 379 (D.C.Cal.1982), affirmed.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Asst. U.S. Atty., Newark, N.J., for appellant.

Fredric D. Woocher, Los Angeles, Cal., for appellees.

Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Moved to action by a widely felt need to sponsor independent sources of broadcast programming as an alternative to commercial broadcasting, Congress set out in 1967 to support and promote the development of noncommercial, educational broadcasting stations. A keystone of Congress' program was the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, Pub.L. 90-129, 81 Stat. 365, 47 U.S.C. § 390 et seq., which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit corporation authorized to disburse federal funds to noncommercial television and radio stations in support of station operations and educational programming. Section 399 of that Act, as amended by the Public Broadcasting Amendments Act of 1981, Pub.L. 97-35, 95 Stat. 730, forbids any "noncommercial educational broadcasting station which receives a grant from the Corporation" to "engage in editorializing." 47 U.S.C. § 399. In this case, we are called upon to decide whether Congress, by imposing that restriction, has passed a "law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press" in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.


The history of noncommercial, educational broadcasting in the United States is as old as broadcasting itself.1 In its first efforts to regulate broadcasting, Congress made no special provision for noncommercial, educational broadcasting stations. Under the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934, such stations were subject to the same licensing requirements as their commercial counterparts. As commercial broadcasting rapidly expanded during the 1930's, however, the percentage of broadcast licenses held by noncommercial stations began to shrink. In 1939, recognizing the potential effect of these commercial pressures on educational stations, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or Commission) decided to reserve certain frequencies for educational radio, 47 CFR §§ 4.131-4.133 (1939), and in 1945, the Commission allocated 20 frequencies on the new FM spectrum exclusively for educational use, FCC, Report of Proposed Allocations 77 (1945). Similarly, in 1952, with the advent of television, the FCC reserved certain television channels solely for educational stations. Television Assignments, 41 F.C.C. 148 (1952). Helped in part by these allocations, a wide variety of noncommercial stations, some funded by state and local governments and others by private donations and foundation grants, developed during this period.2

It was not until 1962, however, that Congress provided any direct financial assistance to noncommercial, educational broadcasting. This first step was taken with the passage of the Educational Television Act of 1962, Pub.L. 87-447, 76 Stat. 64, which authorized the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to distribute $32 million in matching grants over a 5-year period for the construction of noncommercial television facilities.

Impetus for expanded federal involvement came in 1967 when the Carnegie Corporation sponsored a special commission to review the state of educational broadcasting. Finding that the prospects for an expanded public broadcasting system rested on "the vigor of its local stations," but that these stations were hobbled by chronic underfinancing, the Carnegie Commission called upon the Federal Government to supplement existing state, local, and private financing so that educational broadcasting could realize its full potential as a true alternative to commercial broadcasting. Carnegie I, at 33-34, 36-37.3 In fashioning a legislative proposal to carry out this vision, the Commission recommended the creation of a nonprofit, nongovernmental "Corporation for Public Television" to provide support for noncommercial broadcasting, including funding for new program production, local station operations, and the establishment of satellite interconnection facilities to permit nationwide distribution of educational programs to all local stations that wished to receive and use them. Id., at 37-38.

The Commission's report met with widespread approval, and its proposals became the blueprint for the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which established the basic framework of the public broadcasting system of today. Titles I and III of the Act authorized over $38 million for continued HEW construction grants and for the study of instructional television. Title II created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB or Corporation), a nonprofit, private corporation governed by a 15-person, bipartisan Board of Directors appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.4 The Corporation was given power to fund "the production of . . . educational television or radio programs for national or regional distribution," 47 U.S.C. § 396(g)(2)(B) (1976 ed.), to make grants to local broadcasting stations that would "aid in financing local educational . . . programming costs of such stations," § 396(g)(2)(C), and to assist in the establishment and development of national interconnection facilities. § 396(g)(2)(E).5 Aside from conferring these powers on the Corporation, Congress also adopted other measures designed both to ensure the autonomy of...

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