FCC v. League of Women Voters, 468 U.S. 364 (1984)

2012-06-21 14:27:27

The writers of the Constitution safeguarded the individual right to freedom of speech with the First Amendment, which forbids Congress from making laws abridging freedom of the press. But does the First Amendment also protect television broadcasters, even those established by law and publicly funded? FCC v. League of Women Voters (League) is important in shaping the answer: broadcasters, even publicly owned, are protected by the First Amendment.

Educational stations, organized and funded under Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 (PBA), were banned by the PBA from editorializing. A station operator, joined by the League of Women Voters, challenged the ban in a lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Regulatory Agency responsible for Broadcast Regulation.

In League, the Supreme Court upheld the district court decision that the ban on editorializing violated the First Amendment. The First Amendment rights of broadcasters cannot be taken away, even though they owe their creation and funding to law. The holding relied on the finding in Red Lion v. FCC, that broadcasters enjoy the broad First Amendment rights of journalists, limited only as required to accommodate the physical limitations of broadcast spectrum. Finding the right to editorialize fundamental, the Supreme Court suggested that FCC regulations of content on the basis of spectrum scarcity should be closely reviewed. This standard of review was subsequently applied to overrule the Fairness Doctrine, regulations requiring broadcasters to present both sides of an issue.

As a result of the decision in League, restrictions on broadcast content are subject to strict scrutiny. Few governmental restrictions remain on television broadcast content. Most important are indecency, as confirmed by the Supreme Court in FCC v. Pacifica, and right of response for presidential candidates, specified in the Communications Act of 1934. The particulars of these restrictions are subject to continuing challenge and debate.


References and Further Reading

  • Carter, T. Barton, Marc A. Franklin, and Jay B. Wright. The First Amendment and the Fifth Estate: Regulation of Electronic Mass Media. 2nd Ed. Westbury, New York: Foundation Press, 1989.
  • Corn-Revere, Robert L., et al. Modern Communication Law. St. Paul, MN: West Group, 1999.
  • Russomanno, Joseph. Speaking Our Minds: Conversations with the People Behind Landmark First Amendment Cases. Mahwah: NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • CBS, Inc. v. FCC, 453 U.S. 367 (1981)
  • FCC v. League of Women Voters of California, 468 U.S. 364 (1984)
  • FCC v. Pacifica, 438 U.S. 726 (1978)
  • Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 453 U.S. 367 (1981)
  • The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, Pub. L. 90-129, 81 Stat. 365, 47 U.S.C. 390 et seq., 47 U.S.C. 399

See alsoBroadcastRegulation; FairnessDoctrine;FCCv. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978); Federal Communications Commission; Government Speech; Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 453 U.S. 367 (1969)