The FCC this week decided to extend its online public file requirement beyond just TV broadcasters to cable and satellite providers, as well as radio broadcasters. Except for commercial stations that are in top 50 radio markets and have five or more full-time employees, there will be a two year delay for radio to meet the new requirements.
Of particular note, while a waiver process was adopted for individual cases, the FCC decided to generally include donor lists for noncommercial (NCE) stations in the online file. Previously, NRB had weighed in with the FCC to highlight the “qualitative difference” between donor information in a NCE radio station’s physical public inspection file versus having it on the Internet. Indeed, NRB’s filing declared, “[I]t is dubious to suggest that some Internet-trolling person in Los Angeles, or in Miami, for instance, would have any tangible, substantial ‘public interest’ in learning the identity of local residents in Ohio who donate to a noncommercial religious radio station that happens to carry a controversial talk show.”
“Requiring online publication of donor lists is a recipe for mischief,” said NRB President & CEO Dr. Jerry A. Johnson. “I am greatly concerned that this new rule could be detrimental to listener-supported stations that do much good for their local communities.”
Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly raised donor list objections at this week’s Open Meeting. Commissioner Pai specifically referenced NRB’s public comments, and while he generally supported the underlying principles of the new rule, he declared:
The point about retaliation is one that I take very seriously. Recently, it has become disturbingly common for people with unpopular or controversial positions to be harassed, shouted down, or intimidated. Some have even lost their jobs or seen their businesses boycotted. I do not believe that the FCC should do anything that could enable this kind of bullying. It principally serves to chill public debate and impoverish the marketplace of ideas, and it is unbecoming of a nation that cherishes its First Amendment freedoms. Now, I have no doubt some will shrug off this concern because it rarely seems to harm people whose views they agree with. But when this deliberate indifference is reinforced by a government mandate, it effectively leaves us with the Orwellian notion that “all viewpoints are equal, but some are more equal than others.” And it ignores our nation’s history. For example, in the landmark 1958 case of NAACP v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed the State of Alabama’s attempt to require the NAACP to disclose the names and addresses of its Alabama members, an effort that was clearly designed to discourage Alabamians from supporting the civil rights organization.
While the majority of Commissioners would not budge from exempting donor lists from the online public file, they were willing to at least include a process by which NCE stations could ask for a waiver from the donor list requirement and would not be forced to put such a list online until all agency and court avenues of redress had been exhausted. Commissioner Pai noted, “This ensures that any NCE station will get full and fair consideration of its position (if it so desires) before donor names are published online.”
On that note, Dr. Johnson added, “I thank Commissioners Pai and O'Rielly for highlighting the dangers of moving donor lists online. After deliberation the Commission at least included a waiver mechanism by which radio stations can seek relief from posting their donor lists on the Internet. I hope agency officials will take great care not to allow well-meaning charitable donors to fall prey to online bullies.”
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations
Published: January 29, 2016