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Are Campaign Ads Coming to PBS?

Last Thursday, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco struck down a seven-decade-old ban on political ads on noncommercial TV and radio stations. Not surprisingly, the prospect that Elmo and the Dowager Countess now might have to share the airwaves with attack ads prompted a mild freakout.  

Former PBS board member and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norman Ornstein told Reuters that the decision might "fundamentally change the character of public television and radio." The court's one dissenting judge similarly warned that the ruling could "jeopardize the future of public broadcasting." Craig Aaron, president and chief executive of Free Press, told the Los Angeles Times, "Viewers don't want to see Sesame Street being brought to them by shadowy Super PACs." But such concerns may be premature.

The court's decision (PDF) was in response to a $10,000 Federal Communications Commission fine levied on the Minority Television Project, a San Francisco public TV operator that had aired nonpolitical ads from Chevrolet and State Farm. That move violated an advertising ban dating back to the beginnings of noncommercial broadcasting in the 1940s. While the court upheld the ban on ads for "goods and services by for-profit entities," its two-judge majority found that banning ads that are political or "regarding issues of public importance or interest" violated the First Amendment. (The fine against Minority Television Project still stands.)

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