Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. v. FCC,
512 U.S. 622 (1994)

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No. 93-44. Argued January 12, 1994-Decided June 27,1994

Concerned that a competitive imbalance between cable television and over-the-air broadcasters was endangering the broadcasters' ability to compete for a viewing audience and thus for necessary operating revenues, Congress passed the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992. Sections 4 and 5 of the Act require cable television systems to devote a specified portion of their channels to the transmission of local commercial and public broadcast stations. Soon after the Act became law, appellants, numerous cable programmers and operators, challenged the constitutionality of the must-carry provisions. The District Court granted the United States and intervenordefendants summary judgment, ruling that the provisions are consistent with the First Amendment. The court rejected appellants' argument that the provisions warrant strict scrutiny as a content-based regulation and sustained them under the intermediate standard of scrutiny set forth in United States v. O'Brien, 391 U. S. 367, concluding that they are sufficiently tailored to serve the important governmental interest in the preservation of local broadcasting.

Held: The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded. 819 F. Supp. 32, vacated and remanded.

JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III -A, concluding that the appropriate standard by which to evaluate the constitutionality of the must-carry provisions is the intermediate level of scrutiny applicable to content-neutral restrictions that impose an incidental burden on speech. Pp. 636-664.

(a) Because the must-carry provisions impose special obligations upon cable operators and special burdens upon cable programmers, heightened First Amendment scrutiny is demanded. The less rigorous standard of scrutiny now reserved for broadcast regulation, see Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U. S. 367, should not be extended to cable regulation, since the rationale for such review-the dual problems of spectrum scarcity and signal interference-does not apply in the context of cable. Nor is the mere assertion of dysfunction or failure in the cable market, without more, sufficient to shield a speech regulation from the First Amendment standards applicable to nonbroadcast media.


Moreover, while enforcement of a generally applicable law against members of the press may sometimes warrant only rational-basis scrutiny, laws that single out the press for special treatment pose a particular danger of abuse by the State and are always subject to some degree of heightened scrutiny. Pp. 636-641.

(b) The must-carry rules are content neutral, and thus are not subject to strict scrutiny. They are neutral on their face because they distinguish between speakers in the television programming market based only upon the manner in which programmers transmit their messages to viewers, not the messages they carry. The purposes underlying the must-carry rules are also unrelated to content. Congress' overriding objective was not to favor programming of a particular content, but rather to preserve access to free television programming for the 40 percent of Americans without cable. The challenged provisions' design and operation confirm this purpose. Congress' acknowledgment that broadcast television stations make a valuable contribution to the Nation's communications structure does not indicate that Congress regarded broadcast programming to be more valuable than cable programming; rather, it reflects only the recognition that the services provided by broadcast television have some intrinsic value and are worth preserving against the threats posed by cable. It is also incorrect to suggest that Congress enacted must-carry in an effort to exercise content control over what subscribers view on cable television, given the minimal extent to which the Federal Communications Commission and Congress influence the programming offered by broadcast stations. Pp. 641-652.

(c) None of appellants' additional arguments suffices to require strict scrutiny in this case. The provisions do not intrude on the editorial control of cable operators. They are content neutral in application, and they do not force cable operators to alter their own messages to respond to the broadcast programming they must carry. In addition, the physical connection between the television set and the cable network gives cable operators bottleneck, or gatekeeper, control over most programming delivered into subscribers' homes. Miami Herald Publishing Go. v. Tornillo, 418 U. S. 241, and Pacific Gas & Elec. Go. v. Public Util. Gomm'n of Gal., 475 U. S. 1, distinguished. Strict scrutiny is also not triggered by Congress' preference for broadcasters over cable operators, since it is based not on the content of the programming each group offers, but on the belief that broadcast television is in economic peril. Nor is such scrutiny warranted by the fact that the provisions single out certain members of the press-here, cable operators-for disfavored treatment. Such differential treatment is justified by the special characteristics of the cable medium-namely, the cable operators' bottleneck

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

Requiring TV networks to devote some channels to local broadcast stations is permissible under the First Amendment because it furthers an important government interest and does not burden speech substantially more than necessary.


The Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act was created by Congress to require cable television stations to allocate some of their channels to local broadcast stations. When Turner Broadcasting challenged the law, the Federal Communications Commission received summary judgment. The initial appeal to the Supreme Court resulted in a ruling that the law was content-neutral, and the case was remanded for the lower court to determine whether the state had an important interest and whether the law burdened more speech than necessary to further any such interest. The FCC again received summary judgment from the trial court.



  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • John Paul Stevens
  • David H. Souter

This regulation is content-neutral because it is not based on the views and ideas that are expressed by the cable providers. Intermediate scrutiny thus is the appropriate standard of review. Any burdens that are imposed by the regulation are minimal, since they consist only of reducing the number of controlled channels and broadening the scope of competition for the remaining channels. These restrictions also have no impact on content.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Clarence Thomas

The appropriate standard of review is strict scrutiny rather than intermediate scrutiny, since this is a content-based regulation. The government is favoring the speech of broadcasters over cable networks, which must be because it values their content more highly. Congress is not in a position to determine whether localized or general speech has greater value.


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Author)

Case Commentary

The content-neutral nature of the law was critical to the decision, since it does not require networks to promote certain viewpoints and has an apparently innocent purpose of giving people access to information specific to their area.

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