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Court overturns ban on political ads on public TV, radio stations

April 12, 2012 |  4:19 pm

Public radio and television stations may no longer be a safe haven from political advertising.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a ruling Thursday that throws out a congressional statute prohibiting public radio and television stations from accepting political advertisements. The court kept intact rules banning advertising for for-profit entities on public stations.

Some media advocacy groups blasted the ruling, concerned that public radio and television stations will become just another platform for political attack ads.

“Polluting public broadcasting with misleading and negative political ads is not in keeping with the original vision of noncommercial broadcasting," said Craig Aaron, president and chief executive of Free Press. "At a time when people are turning to public broadcasting to get away from the flood of nasty attack ads, viewers don’t want to see ‘Sesame Street’ being brought to them by shadowy Super PACs.”

The Department of Justice said it was reviewing the 9th Circuit decision and declined further comment on whether it would appeal the ruling.

If the ruling stands and nonprofit stations open their doors to political ads, it could be bad news for the commercial television and radio stations that count on political advertising as a big money maker during election years.

Commercials were banned on public broadcasting stations because the government didn't want concern over ratings and advertising dollars to influence programming decisions at stations whose mandate is to serve the public with news and educational programming.

In its ruling, the 9th Circuit agreed there is no evidence to support Congress’ "specific determination that public issue and political advertisements impact the programming decisions of public broadcast stations to a degree that justifies the comprehensive advertising restriction at issue here."

The ruling was in response to a suit filed by KMTP-TV, a non-commercial television in San Francisco, which wanted to have the rules tossed on 1st Amendment grounds. The station had been fined by the Federal Communications Commission for accepting paid advertising from for-profit companies, including State Farm and Chevrolet.

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-- Joe Flint

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