May 21, 2018
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A threat to tranquility

Jerry Swope | BDN file photo
Jerry Swope | BDN file photo
John Michael talks with Fred Bever of Maine Public Radio after finishing a live call-in show in October 2002.


Some people love the commercials on television and radio. Some find them an annoying distraction, especially political advertising in this election year. Fortunately for the latter, public broadcasting offers a respite from political ads.

But no good thing lasts forever. A U.S. appellate court panel has ruled that public broadcasting stations may accept paid political advertising and paid public issue advertising. It overturned provisions of a 1990 law that imposed the ban.

A San Francisco public television station had brought the case, complaining that the ban violated its First Amendment right of free speech.

The split 2-1 decision came at a sensitive time for two reasons. First, public radio and television stations in Maine and across the country face shrinking revenues as state and federal funding has been reduced and may before long disappear altogether. Second, political advertising money is suddenly almost unlimited, with the growth of newly permitted super PACs added onto already huge ordinary ads.

Public stations, with their strained budgets and with all that money begging for customers, may find political advertising a fierce temptation.

How will this affect the Maine Public Broadcasting Network? Its president, Mark Vogelzang, said that “it’s too early to say anything.” He noted that the decision applies only to the Ninth Circuit, which covers mainly certain western states and does not apply to Maine. He points out that even if the ban is lifted for Maine, accepting political advertising will be up to MPBN’s discretion.

MPBN board chairman Hank Schmelzer said, “The decision strikes down a law that has has helped for almost 60 years prevent the politicalization of public broadcasting. Suffice it to say, it’s a big issue that could completely change the nature of public broadcasting. We are following developments closely at this point.”

The law that the appeals court has partly overturned prohibits public radio and television stations from broadcasting advertisements for goods and services on behalf of for-profit entities, advertisements regarding issues of public importance or interest, and political advertisements.

Maine’s public broadcasting audience may sometimes think that the stations already accept paid advertising. They do not, but the accept brief and closely regulated descriptions of organizations that sponsor programs and supply much of the stations’ revenue.

The decision left in place the ban on advertisements for for-profit goods and services. It may be months before the Justice Department decides whether to seek a rehearing by the three-judge panel or a review of the case by the full circuit court or whether to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

Unless the appeal process ultimately upholds the full ban on commercial advertising on public stations, the appellate court’s decision remains a threat to public broadcasting as we know it.

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