FCC v. League of Women Voters
Annotate this Case
468 U.S. 364 (1984)
U.S. Supreme Court
FCC v. League of Women Voters, 468 U.S. 364 (1984)
Federal Communications Commission v.
League of Women Voters of California
Argued January 16, 1984
Decided July 2, 1984
468 U.S. 364
The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 (Act) established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a nonprofit corporation, to disburse federal funds to noncommercial television and radio stations in support of station operations and educational programming. Section 399 of the Act forbids any noncommercial educational station that receives a grant from the CPB to "engage in editorializing." Appellees (Pacifica Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that owns and operates several noncommercial educational broadcasting stations that receive grants from the CPB, the League of Women Voters of California, and an individual listener and viewer of public broadcasting) brought an action in Federal District Court challenging the constitutionality of § 399. The District Court granted summary judgment in appellees' favor, holding that § 399 violates the First Amendment.
Held: Section 399's ban on editorializing violates the First Amendment. Pp. 468 U. S. 374-402.
(a) Congress, acting pursuant to the Commerce Clause, has power to regulate the use of the broadcast medium. In the exercise of this power, Congress may seek to assure that the public receives through this medium a balanced presentation of information and views on issues of public importance that otherwise might not be addressed if control of the medium were left entirely in the hands of the owners and operators of broadcasting stations. At the same time, since broadcasters are engaged in a vital and independent form of communicative activity, the First Amendment must inform and give shape to the manner in which Congress exercises its regulatory power. Thus, although the broadcasting industry operates under restrictions not imposed upon other media, the thrust of these restrictions has generally been to secure the public's First Amendment interest in receiving a balanced presentation of views on diverse matters of public concern. As a result, the absolute freedom to advocate one's own positions without also presenting opposing viewpoints -- a freedom enjoyed, for example, by newspaper publishers -- is denied to broadcasters. Such restrictions have been upheld
by this Court only when they were narrowly tailored to further a substantial governmental interest, such as ensuring adequate and balanced coverage of public issues. Pp. 468 U. S. 374-381.
(b) The restriction imposed by § 399 is specifically directed at a form of speech -- the expression of editorial opinions -- that lies at the heart of First Amendment protection, and is defined solely on the basis of the content of the suppressed speech. Section 399 singles out noncommercial broadcasters and denies them the right to address their chosen audience on matters of public importance. Pp. 468 U. S. 381-384.
(c) Section 399's broad ban on all editorializing by every station that receives CPB funds far exceeds what is necessary to protect against the risk of governmental interference or to prevent the public from assuming that editorials by public broadcasting stations represent the official view of government. The ban impermissibly sweeps within it a wide range of speech by wholly private stations on topics that do not take a directly partisan stand or that have nothing whatever to do with federal, state, or local government. Pp. 468 U. S. 386-395.
(d) The patent overinclusiveness and underinclusiveness of § 399's ban also undermines the likelihood of a genuine governmental interest in preventing private groups from propagating their own views via public broadcasting. Section 399 does not prevent the use of noncommercial stations for the presentation of partisan views on controversial matters; instead, it merely bars a station from specifically labeling such issues as its own or those of its management. Pp. 468 U. S. 396-399.
(e) Section 399 cannot be justified on the basis of Congress' spending power as simply determining that Congress will not subsidize public broadcasting station editorials. Regan v. Taxation With Representation of Washington, 461 U. S. 540, distinguished. Since a noncommercial educational station that receives only 1% of its income from CPB grants is barred absolutely from editorializing, such a station has no way of limiting the use of its federal funds to noneditorial activities, and, more importantly, it is barred from using even private funds to finance its editorial activity. Pp. 468 U. S. 399-401.
547 F.Supp. 379, affirmed.
BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting statement, post, p. 468 U. S. 402. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, J., joined, post, p. 468 U. S. 402. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 468 U. S. 408.