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Updated on May 30, 2013

Unless you're being Hustled

It's always interesting to see how some of our elected officials--or those who want to be elected--react in the days before the polls open, especially those who think they are in extremely tight races. Complaining about coverage, or threatening those who provide the coverage, is standard practice, and has been for years. But it's always advisable to know the law when these public office holders, or wannabes, forge ahead with their bluster.

In the past several days, lawyers for several candidates for Congress have demanded that TV stations remove ads placed by their opponents. These ads, the politicians say, terribly distort their records. It's too bad these candidates, and especially their attorneys, didn't check the Equal Time Law passed by Congress more than 40 years ago, and updated in 1996 in the Telecommunications Act of that same year.

Although many federal regulations, including dictates from the Federal Communications Commission, have been relaxed over the past few decades, Equal Time for political candidates is not one of them. And nestled inside that law is something that might be of interest to these angry public officials demanding censorship. Few people know, or care, but the law specifically prohibits television and radio stations that are licensed by the FCC from censoring political ads in any way, unless those ads are considered obscene.

Consequently, these media outlets also cannot be sued for libel or invasion of privacy based on the content of the ads that they, basically, have no control over. The obscenity exception came in 1984 when a certain Larry Flynt ran for president. Yes, that Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler Magazine. In his TV ads for president, in talking about his publishing empire, several covers of Hustler were featured showing naked women. The television stations balked at running the ads, of course, and the U. S. Supreme Court said, okay, here's the exception to the rule. But everything else is off limits for censorhip. Even racial epithets. What candidate in his right mind would use such inflammatory and offensive words in a political ad aimed at persuading people to vote for him?

Take a visit to Kansas City, where a radio station a few years ago was prohibited from refusing an ad from an extremist running for U. S. representative. That particular ad slammed African Americans and Jews, but ran on the public airwaves anyway, even with a disclaimer from the station's general manager. The law says hands off those ads, and it means it.

The purpose of Equal Time, of course, is--in a perfect world--to encourage argument and discourse so an enlightened electorate can make the best choice. In practice, however, those high ideals fall short when polls tighten and office-holders get desperate. So pols and lawyers can yell and scream, but radio and TV stations (who rake in the bucks at election time anyway, thank you) will just have to, like the rest of us, hold their noses until November 6th.


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