Two prominent House Democrats want the FCC to give stations assurances that their licenses won’t be in jeopardy, after Donald Trump’s presidential campaign suggested as much in a legal threat sent to outlets airing a pro-Joe Biden Super PAC ad critical of the president’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), who heads the communications and technology subcommittee, wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai that “we believe the FCC has a duty to provide clear guidance to broadcasters and the public that threats by politicians about protected speech will not influence the agency or broadcaster licenses. To stay silent could undermine the First Amendment and the Communications Act.”
On March 25, the Trump campaign sent cease and desist letters to stations that have been airing a spot from Priorities USA Action, featuring a graph mapping coronavirus cases in the U.S. over the past two months, with audio of comments Trump has made downplaying the threat of the virus.
The campaign contended that the ad distorted a Trump’s comment at a Feb. 28 rally, that the coronavirus is “their new hoax.” Trump later said that he was referring to Democrats’ criticism of his response to the virus, not the outbreak itself.
In the letter to stations, an attorney for the Trump campaign warned that the outlets “could put your station’s license in jeopardy” by continuing to air the spots. But legal experts say that stations have wide leeway when it comes to political speech, including campaign and issue advertising. Stations owned by Hearst Television and Tegna have continued to air the spot.
In their letter, Pallone and Doyle wrote that the Trump campaign threats are “contrary to the law.”
“At a time when autocratic governments around the world are using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to suppress press freedoms, we must reaffirm, not undermine, America’s committee to a free press,” the wrote. “By remaining silent, the FCC sends a disturbing signal that it sanctions these threats and that broadcaster licenses could be in jeopardy.”
An FCC spokesperson said that they have no comment.
In 2017, after Trump attacked NBC News’ reporting and said that the network licenses should be challenged and even revoked, Pai said that the “FCC under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment.” He said that the agency “under the law does not have the authority to revoke the license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.”
The ad, below, features Trump saying “This is their new hoax,” without specifying the pronoun reference.
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