Summary of Turner Broadcasting v. FCC
Citation: 512 U.S. 622
Relevant Facts: Congress passed the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act in 1992. Two of act’s sections – 3 and 4 – required cable systems to allocate a fixed percentage of their channels to local public stations. This was designated under “must-carry rules." The rules limited the channels that are available for sole control by cable companies.
Issues: The legal question presented was whether the must-carry rules were content-based and therefore violated cable companies’ First Amendment free speech rights to determine what they do and do not broadcast.
Holding: The Supreme Court ruled that the must-carry rules were not content-based. Instead, they were content neutral. Consequently, their imposition did not violate cable companies’ free speech rights.
Reasoning: The Supreme Court reasoned that the rules were intended to promote fair competition rather than censorship in television programming, and that public stations, though not for profit endeavors like those which cable companies were accustomed to merited broadcasting. Congress recognized the value of ensuring broadcast coverage and mandated such, but that the legislation itself was content-neutral, meaning that it was not unconstitutional, because it did not change the message that said companies were trying or not trying to convey.
Dissent: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor dissented, arguing that the rules were merely a pretext for content regulation, which was censorship, and therefore in violation of the Constitution.
Conclusion: This case was important because the Supreme Court found that simple regulation of broadcasting requirements does not automatically indicate censorship or an encroachment on free speech rights of cable companies, provided that the state has a valid interest in ensuring that public stations are able to be broadcasted (have their voices heard).