Political Broadcasting by Independent Committees

C. Broadcast Rights of Independent Political Committees (IPCs)

Because IPCs are a relatively recent phenomenon,73 no balance provisions analogous to the Equal Opportunity or Zapple doctrine specifically govern them.74 Only the fairness doctrine75 currently limits IPC political broadcasting.

1. Affirmative Access Rights

In CBS v. Democratic National Committee, the Supreme Court rejected two IPCs’ claims that the fairness doctrine and the first amendment entitled them to an affirmative access right.76 The Court, emphasizing Congress’s [*642] intent to grant licensees broad journalistic freedom,77 refused to recognize any affirmative access right for IPCs.78 The Court was concerned that a contrary ruling would sanction a system whereby access to the broadcast media would be predicated on a first-come, first-served basis.79 The FCC has reiterated recently the absence of an IPC access right under both CBS v. Democratic National Committee80 and section 312(a)(7).81

2. Contingent Response Rights

Prior to recent, and highly controversial, FCC rulings,82 Broadcast law did not provide IPCs with any contingent response rights. Unlike the equal opportunity provisions for candidates and supporters, the fairness doctrine alone contains neither a right of response in favor of any individual or group83 nor a requirement for equal time or for equal balance between opposing views.84 Under the fairness doctrine, a licensee may exercise discretion in the choice of spokesperson, format, presentation and viewpoints [*643] presented subject only to a standard of reasonableness and good faith.85 If a licensee broadcasts a presentation by one IPC, the fairness doctrine may require the licensee to present opposing views, but not necessarily from an opposing IPC.86 Arguably, the general classification of any two IPCs as “opponents” may be more difficult than similarly classifying political candidates running for the same office.87 However, even when IPCs supporting opposing sides play roles more analogous to those of a candidate’s supporters, and classification presents less of a problem,88 no contingent response right exists.89

In Cullman Broadcasting Co.,90 the FCC created an important exception to the general rule that the fairness doctrine does not provide response rights. The FCC ruled that licensees must provide free response time to persons or groups espousing views contrasting those previously presented on controversial issues of public importance when paid sponsorship is unavailable to the licensee and the licensee has not aired the contrasting viewpoint in other programming.91 Any concern that the Cullman exception might ultimately prove itself broader than the general rule restricting IPCs’ response rights was laid to rest by subsequent FCC rulings that held that the Cullman doctrine does not apply to candidate supporters during election [*644] periods,92 despite the fact that it does apply to campaigns involving ballot propositions.93


Congressional, judicial, and FCC regulation of political broadcasting during the past fifty-seven years has been founded upon a variety of constitutional and policy goals. The elaborate structure of political broadcast rights set out in the previous section provides the means of implementing these goals. The major concerns underlying the present political broadcast laws fall within three general categories: (1) informing the public; (2) protecting the free marketplace of ideas; and (3) maintaining the existing regulatory structure.

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