WASHINGTON — In a case of major concern to broadcasters, a federal appeals court Friday ordered the Federal Communications Commission to consider whether the fairness doctrine is constitutional.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, in a 3-0 panel ruling, found the FCC acted improperly when it refused to consider claims by a Syracuse, N.Y., television station that the doctrine violates the First Amendment.
The fairness doctrine is a requirement that broadcasting stations present contrasting viewpoint on controversial issues of public importance.
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the fairness doctrine in 1969, but at the time noted the matter should be reconsidered if experience "indicates that it has the net effect of reducing rather than enhancing the volume and quality of coverage."
The parties in the case urged the court to strike down the fairness doctrine, but the judges said the request was premature.
"A ruling on the constitutionality of the fairness doctrine would have far reaching implications that might threaten the entire public interest concept that presently governs the award of broadcast license," the court said.
"Accordingly, we remand the case to the FCC with instructions to consider petitioner's constitutional arguments."
The case arose in the summer of 1982 when WTHV of Syracuse, N.Y., broadcast three advertisements sponsored by the Energy Association of New York.
The Syracuse Peace Council complained to the FCC that the station violated the fairness doctrine because the ads promoted the Nine Mile II nuclear plant as a "sound investment" without presenting opposing viewpoints.
Meredith Corp., which owned WTHV, responded that the plant was no longer controversial when the ads aired because the plant has been approved by the state regulatory commission the previous April.
Meredith also argued that the doctrine was unconstitutional because it set restrictions on free speech.
The Meredith case coincided with an FCC study of the fairness doctrine, which concluded in 1985 that the doctrine no longer serves the public interest and is unconstitutional.
In a separate case, the appeals court agreed Friday to decide if the FCC's failure to implement rule-making to modify the doctrine was "arbitrary and capricious" in light of that report.