Red Lion Broadcasting Co v. Federal Communications Commission United States v. Radio Television News Directors Association, s. 2 and 717

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation89 S.Ct. 1794,23 L.Ed.2d 371,395 U.S. 367
Docket NumberNos. 2 and 717,s. 2 and 717
Decision Date09 June 1969

Roger Robb, Washington, D.C., for petitioners Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. and others.

Solicitor Gen., Erwin N. Griswold, for respondents F.C.C. and others and petitioners the United States and others.

Archibald Cox, Washington, D.C., for respondents Radio Television News Directors Assn. and others.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Federal Communications Commission has for many years imposed on radio and television broadcasters the requirement that discussion of public issues be presented on broadcast stations, and that each side of those issues must be given fair coverage. This is known as the fairness doctrine, which originated very early in the history of broadcasting and has maintained its present outlines for some time. It is an obligation whose content has been defined in a long series of FCC rulings in particular cases, and which is distinct from the statu- tory requirement of § 315 of the Communications Act1 that equal time be allotted all qualified candidates for public office. Two aspects of the fairness doctrine, relating to personal attacks in the context of controversial public issues and to political editorializing, were codified more precisely in the form of FCC regulations in 1967. The two cases before us now, which were decided separately below, challenge the constitutional and statutory bases of the doctrine and component rules. Red Lion involves the application of the fairness doctrine to a particular broadcast, and RTNDA arises as an action to review the FCC's 1967 promulgation of the personal attack and political editorializing regulations, which were laid down after the Red Lion litigation had begun.


The Red Lion Broadcasting Company is licensed to operate a Pennsylvania radio station, WGCB. On November 27, 1964, WGCB carried a 15-minute broadcast by the Reverend Billy James Hargis as part of a 'Christian Crusade' series. A book by Fred J. Cook entitled 'Goldwater—Extremist on the Right' was discussed by Hargis, who said that Cook had been fired by a newspaper for making false charges against city officials; that Cook had then worked for a Communist-affiliated publication; that he had defended Alger Hiss and attacked J. Edgar Hoover and the Central Intelligence Agency; and that he had now written a 'book to smear and destroy Barry Goldwater.'2 When Cook heard of the broadcast he concluded that he had been personally attacked and demanded free reply time, which the station refused. After an exchange of letters among Cook, Red Lion, and the FCC, the FCC declared that the Hargis broadcast constituted a personal attack on Cook; that Red Lion had failed to meet its obligation under the fairness doctrine as expressed in Times-Mirror Broadcasting Co., 24 P & F Radio Reg. 404 (1962), to send a tape, transcript, or summary of the broadcast to Cook and offer him reply time; and that the station must provide reply time whether or not Cook would pay for it. On review in the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit,3 the FCC's position was upheld as constitutional and otherwise proper. 127 U.S.App.D.C. 129, 381 F.2d 908 (1967).


Not long after the Red Lion litigation was begun, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making, 31 Fed.Reg. 5710, with an eye to making the personal attack aspect of the fairness doctrine more precise and more readily enforceable, and to specifying its rules relating to political editorials. After considering written comments supporting and opposing the rules, the FCC adopted them substantially as proposed, 32 Fed.Reg. 10303. Twice amended, 32 Fed.Reg. 11531, 33 Fed.Reg. 5362, the rules were held unconstitutional in the RTNDA litigation by the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, on review of the rulemaking proceeding, as abridging the freedoms of speech and press. 400 F.2d 1002 (1968).

As they now stand amended, the regulations read as follows:

'Personal attacks; political editorials.

'(a) When, during the presentation of views on a controversial issue of public importance, an attack is made upon the honesty, character, integrity or like personal qualities of an identified person or group, the licensee shall, within a reasonable time and in no event later than 1 week after the attack, transmit to the person or group attacked (1) notification of the date, time and identification of the broadcast; (2) a script or tape (or an accurate summary if a script or tape is not available ) of the attack, and (3) an offer of a reasonable opportunity to respond over the licensee's facilities.

'(b) The provisions of paragraph (a) of this section shall not be applicable (1) to attacks on foreign groups or foreign public figures; (2) to personal attacks which are made by legally qualified candidates, their authorized spokesmen, or those associated with them in the campaign, on other such candidates, their authorized spokesmen, or persons associated with the candidates in the campaign; and (3) to bona fide newscasts, bona fide news interviews, and on-the-spot coverage of a bona fide news event (including commentary or analysis contained in the foregoing programs, but the provisionso f paragraph (a) of this section shall be applicable to editorials of the licensee).

'NOTE: The fairness doctrine is applicable to situations coming within ((3)), above, and, in a specific factual situation, may be applicable in the ((2)), above. See, section 315(a) of the Act, 47 U.S.C. § 315(a); Public Notice: Applicability of the Fairness Doctrine in the Handling of Controversial Issues of Public Importance. 29 F.R. 10415. The categories listed in ((3)) are the same as those specified in section 315(a) of the Act.

'(c) Where a licensee, in an editorial, (i) endorses or (ii) opposes a legally qualified candidate or candidates, the licensee shall, within 24 hours after the editorial, transmit to respectively (i) the other qualified candidate or candidates for the same office or (ii) the candidate opposed in the editorial (1) notification of the date and the time of the editorial; (2) a script or tape of the editorial; and (3) an offer of a reasonable opportunity for a candidate or a spokesman of the candidate to respond over the licensee's facilities: Provided, however, That where such editorials are broadcast within 72 hours prior to the day of the election, the licensee shall comply with the provisions of this paragraph sufficiently far in advance of the broadcast to enable the candidate or candidates to have a reasonable opportunity to prepare a response and to present it in a timely fashion.' 47 CFR §§ 73.123, 73.300, 73.598, 73.679 (all identical).


Believing that the specific application of the fairness doctrine in Red Lion, and the promulgation of the regulations in RTNDA, are both authorized by Congress and enhance rather than abridge the freedoms of speech and press protected by the First Amendment, we hold them valid and constitutional, reversing the judgment below in RTNDA and affirming the judgment below in Red Lion.


The history of the emergence of the fairness doctrine and of the related legislation shows that the Commission's action in the Red Lion case did not exceed its authority, and that in adopting the new regulations the Commission was implementing congressional policy rather than embarking on a frolic of its own.


Before 1927, the allocation of frequencies was left entirely to the private sector, and the result was chaos.4 It quickly became apparent that broadcast frequencies constituted a scarce resource whose use could be regulated and rationalized only by the Government. Without government control, the medium would be of little use because of the cacaphony of competing voices, none of which could be clearly and predictably heard.5 Consequently, the Federal Radio Commission was established to allocate frequencies among competing applicants in a manner responsive to the public 'convenience, interest, or necessity.'6

Very shortly thereafter the Commission expressed its view that the 'public interest requires ample play for the free and fair competition of opposing views, and the commission believes that the principle applies * * * to all discussions of issues of importance to the public.' Great Lakes Broadcasting Co., 3 F.R.C.Ann.Rep. 32, 33 (1929), rev'd on other grounds, 59 App.D.C. 197, 37 F.2d 993, cert. dismissed, 281 U.S. 706, 50 S.Ct. 467, 74 L.Ed., 1129 (1930). This doctrine was applied through denial of license renewals or construction permits, both by the FRC, Trinity Methodist Church, South v. FRC, 61 App.D.C. 311, 62 F.2d 850 (1932), cert. denied, 288 U.S. 599, 53 S.Ct. 317, 77 L.Ed. 975 (1933), and its successor FCC, Young People's Association for the Propagation of the Gospel, 6 F.C.C. 178 (1938). After an extended period during which the licensee was obliged not only to cover and to cover fairly the views of others, but also to refrain from expressing his own personal views, Mayflower Broadcasting Corp., 8 F.C.C. 333 (1940), the latter limitation on the licensee was abandoned and the doctrine developed into its present form.

There is a twofold duty laid down by the FCC's decisions and described by the 1949 Report on Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees, 13 F.C.C. 1246 (1949). The broadcaster must give adequate coverage to public issues, United Broadcasting Co., 10 F.C.C. 515 (1945), and coverage must be fair in that it accurately reflects the opposing views. New Broadcasting Co., 6 P & F Radio Reg. 258 (1950). This must be done at the broadcaster's own expense if sponsorship is unavailable. Cullman Broadcasting Co., 25 P & F Radio Reg. 895 (1963)....

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