Some PBS and NPR stations may be in for an election year bonanza if today’s ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco stands. Justices overturned part of a statute that bars federally funded public broadcasters from accepting political and issue ads; they upheld the ban on commercials for goods and services from for-profit entities. The law was designed to keep public broadcasters from feeling financial pressures to reach a mass audience, which could result in less public service programming including educational shows for kids. But the court said that “neither logic nor evidence” show that stations would abandon their public service mission in order to score issue and political ads. Lawmakers’ decision to let stations accept ads from non-profits was “fatal” to the case that the FCC made to defend the law. “That is the kind of picking-and-choosing among different types of speech that Congress may not do” under the First Amendment without proof that it’s needed to serve a “substantial interest,” the court said.
But the justices were split. Judge Richard Paez said, in a dissent, that “for almost 60 years, noncommercial broadcasters have been effectively insulated from the lure of paid advertising.” If the majority decision stands then it “could jeopardize the future of public broadcasting.” Following the decision, activist group Free Press urged public broadcasters to reject attack ads. Viewers “don’t want to see Sesame Street being brought to them by shadowy Super PACs,” CEO Craig Aaron said.
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