Public radio and TV stations can now air political and “public issue” advertisements, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday in a case affecting a tiny San Francisco TV station.
In a 2-1 ruling, the appeals court argued that a law banning such advertisements violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by placing too great a restriction on speech without serving a substantial government interest.
“That is the kind of picking-and-choosing among different types of speech that Congress may not do, absent evidence to show that Congress’s favoritism is necessary to serve its substantial interest,” Judge Carlos T. Bea wrote.
The Minority Television Project, a nonprofit that runs KMTP-TV in San Francisco, challenged the law as unconstitutional after it was fined by the Federal Communications Commission for running paid ads from for-profit companies.
The court ruled that such ads can still be prohibited, but that political and public issue ads cannot. It said there is no evidence that political and public issues ads are more harmful than ads for goods and services by non-profits.
“Public issue and political advertisements pose no threat of ‘commercialization,’” Bea wrote. “By definition, such advertisements do not encourage viewers to buy commercial goods and services. A ban on such advertising therefore cannot be narrowly tailored to serve the interest of preventing the ‘commercialization’ of broadcasting.”
Station officials could not be reached for comment, but their website identifies KMTP as “the only public broadcasting station in the market that places substantial reliance on corporate sponsors and contributions rather than government funding.”
The court upheld the ban on ads for goods and services from for-profit companies after deciding it could look at those categories of advertising separately.