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Court, in NY State Case, Refuses to Revive Fairness Doctrine

January 8, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today refused to force reinstatement of the ″fairness doctrine″ that required radio and television stations to present all sides of controversial issues.

The court, without comment, let stand a ruling that the Federal Communications Commission acted within its authority in 1987 when it discarded the doctrine it had imposed on broadcasters since 1949.

The fairness doctrine was based on the assumption that broadcast frequencies were less available than print media outlets such as newspapers, which never have been subjected to such requirements.

For years, radio and TV could be punished - even denied license renewals - for violating the doctrine, which required that broadcast stations selling air time for the expression of one point of view on a controversial issue had to present contrasting views on that issue, either by selling ads or making free time available to groups with opposing views.

The appeal acted on today stemmed from a fairness-doctrine complaint filed by an anti-nuclear group against Syracuse, N.Y., television station WTVH in 1984.

The FCC said the station aired a series of editorial advertisements that described construction of a nuclear generating plant as a ″sound investment″ for New York without adequately presenting contrasting viewpoints.

But the commission at that time had begun to question the permissibility of the fairness doctrine, and in 1987 concluded that forcing broadcasters to be fair violates constitutionally protected free-press rights and ″contravenes the public interest.″

The commission dismissed the complaint against the Meredith Corp., owner of WTVH.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here upheld the commission’s action last Feb. 10 without reaching the issue of the fairness doctrine’s constitutionality.

Congress is considering legislation that would force the commission to revive the fairness doctrine by explicitly writing it into federal law.

Similar legislation was vetoed in 1987 by then-President Reagan. President Bush has said he, too, would veto such a measure.

The appeals court, agreeing with the commission in this case, ruled that nothing in the Communications Act of 1934 or its later amendments requires retention of the doctrine.

Lawyers for the anti-nuclear group, the Syracuse Peace Council, said the appeals court ruling, if not reversed, would subvert ″the long-established public trustee concept for broadcasting.″

They argued that a 1959 amendment to the Communications Act gave the FCC no choice but to enforce the fairness doctrine.

″In that amendment, Congress specifically recognized that the public interest standard of the 1934 act embodies the bedrock fairness obligation,″ the appeal contended.

Bush administration lawyers urged the high court to reject the appeal. They said the doctrine should not be enforced ″at a point when the commission determines that it has become counterproductive.″

The case is Syracuse Peace Council vs. FCC, 89-312.

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