NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Do Lawsuits Over Political Advertising Threaten Free Speech?

October 2, 2002

Managers of radio and television stations around the country are finding themselves in the unwelcome position of having to adjudicate a barrage of demands from Democratic and Republican Party lawyers pressuring them to pull ads in closely-fought congressional races. One false step and they could face the risk of a defamation suit.

  • Close to 25 television stations have pulled advertisements thus far.
  • Station managers and their lawyers are forced to scour the Congressional Record, court records and law books to determine if an ad is entirely accurate or whether it goes too far.
  • Republicans have moved aggressively against Democratic advertisements that portray Republican candidates either as favoring privatizing Social Security or as resistant to measures to increase corporate responsibility.
  • Democrats have responded by attacking advertisements that have sought to portray Democrats as supporting tax hikes.

Lawyers say the stations could be held liable if a political committee broadcasts an attack ad a court finds defamatory. They are not liable if a candidate puts up an attack ad because stations are required to broadcast those commercials by the Federal Communications Commission.

Source: Adam Nagourney and Adam Clymer, "Local Television Stations Become the New Arbiter of Political Fair Play," New York Times, October 2, 2002.


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