FCC’s Attempt to Ease Media Ownership Rules Struck Down by Court

Federal appeals court says commission didn’t properly get public input before changing 35-year-old rules

An FCC decision that would have allowed companies to own both newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market was struck down Thursday morning by a federal appeals court in Philadelphia.

In its ruling, the court also upheld pre-existing limits on the number of television and radio stations any broadcaster can own in any single market, and ordered the FCC to consider how media ownership rules affect ownership of media outlets by women and people of color.

The court, however, didn't make its judgment on the merits of the case but said the FCC didn't follow the proper procedure when it changed its rules. Before it can change its rules, the FCC is required to seek public input; the court said the FCC didn't properly get that input.

"The point of having the public weigh in is to give the agency information that will help them reach a better rule in the end," explained Corie Wright, policy counsel of Free Press and one of the lawyers who argued the case.

Wright told TheWrap that "because the FCC had such a crummy notice period, it didn't have the benefit of public input."

The case, Prometheus Radio Project v FCC, goes back to to 2007, when the FCC, then headed by Kevin Martin, decided change a 35-year prohibition and allow "cross ownership" of newspapers and broadcast facilities by single companies.

The decision is especially important now because the FCC is about to review its rules once again. Every four years, the agency is required to determine whether its rules need to be relaxed, tightened or kept in place.

While the FCC waited for the court to issue its opinion, it held off on its review.

"This decision throws is headlong into the FCC's next media ownership move," Wright said.

In a written statement, FCC General Counsel Austin Schlick said that the court's "approval of the 2008 ownership rules for broadcast stations affirms the FCC's authority to promote competition, localism and diversity in the modern media marketplace. The Commission is currently engaged in a statutorily mandated further review of its media ownership rules. With an updated record and this supportive decision, the agency should be able to take appropriate steps to ensure that the nation's media marketplace remains healthy and vibrant."