Appeals Court Sides with Public-Interest Groups and Rejects Trump FCC Attempt to Scrap Media-Ownership Limits
PHILADELPHIA — On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit delivered a forceful rebuke of the Federal Communications Commission and overturned the agency’s latest attempts to eliminate long-standing limits on local-media ownership.
An alliance of public-interest groups — Common Cause, the Communications Workers of America, Free Press, the Media Mobilizing Project, the Prometheus Radio Project and the United Church of Christ Office of Communication, Inc., as well as attorneys from the Georgetown Law Institute of Public Representation — challenged the Trump FCC’s ruling for its failure to address the impact of this radical deregulation on race and gender diversity in broadcasting.
The court agreed in full with the public-interest groups’ argument that the Commission “did not adequately consider the effect its sweeping rule changes will have on ownership of broadcast media by women and racial minorities.”
In a 2–1 decision, the judges agreed with this group of petitioners and rejected the FCC’s decision to scrap rules prohibiting newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership and barring broadcasters from owning even more stations in a single local market.
The agency’s neglect of its obligation to promote localism, diversity and competition in broadcasting has led to a wave of media consolidation as giant broadcast owners have attempted to further expand their hold on local radio and television stations via mergers and the use of shell companies.
This is the fourth time the Third Circuit has rejected some or all of the FCC’s efforts to deregulate over the past 15 years due to the agency’s failures to study the public impact of its policy changes. In today’s ruling, the judges characterized the FCC’s analysis as “so insubstantial that it would receive a failing grade in any introductory statistics class.”
Free Press Vice President of Strategy and Senior Counsel Jessica J. González made the following statement:
“Today’s ruling is a tremendous victory for the public. It admonishes the Trump FCC for its complete failure to consider the impact of its ownership policies on women and people of color. This marks the fourth time this court has rejected the relentless attempts from the FCC and the broadcast industry to weaken media-ownership limits regardless of the damage such drastic deregulation would cause local communities.
“Congress put broadcast-ownership limits in place for a reason: to promote a diversity of viewpoints among local stations. Free Press sued the FCC for turning its back on this core principle, placing station ownership in too few hands and denying millions of people in the United States broadcast media that serve community needs.
“Media consolidation leaves communities with far less of the local news and information people need to stay informed. Despite the growth in digital-media options, free over-the-air broadcasting remains a critical news source for people of color and low-income communities in particular. To meet the needs of these populations, the FCC must nurture ownership diversity, not let giant companies like Nexstar, Fox and Sinclair devour even more local stations.
“The FCC must now do the job it’s long refused to do: properly weigh all of the evidence showing the impact of media consolidation on local communities. It’s time we had real data on the agency’s decades-long neglect of ownership diversity, and then policies designed to fix that problem for real. We’re confident that the data will show that more media consolidation is the wrong path for creating a democratic and diverse media system.”
Cheryl Leanza, who argued the case on behalf of Common Cause, the Communications Workers of America, Free Press, the Media Mobilizing Project, the Prometheus Radio Project and the United Church of Christ Office of Communication, Inc., made the following statement:
"The Federal Communications Commission has not learned its lesson, even after almost 20 years of litigation about media ownership. The law says the FCC must consider how its rules impact ownership by women and people of color. The FCC treated its important statutory obligation as less important than a high-school math assignment, and the court gave it a failing grade even at that level.
“Not only did the FCC ignore its obligation to diversity, but the Third Circuit opinion upholds the right of public-interest organizations and ordinary individuals to sue the FCC, in direct contrast with the FCC's decision last week narrowing the ability of people to challenge its rules. Reasoned decision-making should not fear court review.”
Media Mobilizing Project Executive Director Bryan Mercer made the following statement:
“Today, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals took everyday Philadelphians and our communities into account when considering how diversity of media ownership impacts our dignity and our fight for justice.
“As we organize with Black, Brown, immigrant and other communities in Philly, we see how the diversity of stories grounded in our communities builds our power. This decision is telling the Trump administration that it can't ignore us as it pushes regulations to enrich big companies and hurt our communities. We will build on this victory and support and expand diverse voices in our media here, and nationwide.”
Benton Institute for Broadband and Society Senior Counselor Andrew Jay Schwartzman made the following statement:
“The Court of Appeals has found that the FCC has yet again failed to assess how changing its ownership limits affects people of color and women. Diverse ownership benefits everyone, and rejection of the FCC’s deregulation is a small step in restoring a system that promotes such diversity.”
Georgetown Law Professor Angela Campbell, who has served as counsel to the petitioners since the 2002 Biennial Review and argued two earlier cases, made the following statement:
“It is very gratifying that the court has agreed with us once again that the FCC has paid insufficient attention to diversifying broadcast-station ownership. I hope that the FCC will finally do its job and take action so that that broadcasters will reflect the true diversity of the American public.”