Persons or groups who challenge the racial policies of broadcast stations do not have the right to begin probing those policies at an early stage of the stations' license renewal process, the full U.S. Court of Appeals ruled here yesterday.
The ruling, which the appeals court claimed is its "definitive" statement on the subject, came in a case involving challenges to licenses of radio stations in Texas and California.
Yesterday's 8-to-1 decision reverses an earlier ruling by a three-judge appellate panel that allowed minority groups to enter the license renewal process for the two stations at an early stage and participate in legal "discovery" to help develop facts for a formal Federal Communications Commission hearing on the topic of alleged racial discrimination.
The full court's opinion, written by U.S. Circuit judge Malcolm R. Wilkey, said a "regulatory nightmare" would be created by allowing minority groups to become actually part of the proceedings.
"If each licensee is required to provide sufficient, publicly available data on a continuing basis, interested and responsible parties can undertake meaningful inquiry of their own without tying up FCC personnel or subjecting licenses to unnecessarily lengthly requests for discovery," Wilkey said.
The underlying issue in the case decided yesterday is the manner in which the FCC decides to hold a hearing concerning discrimination claims against a particular station before renewing its license.
In one case before the court yesterday, the FCC had rejected claims by Asian-Americans in the San Francisco, Calif., area concerning the hiring practices of a radio station there. The court agreed with the FCC yesterday that no hearing was required by the FCC on the basis of the facts it had before it.
The other case before the court yesterday involved alleged discrimination claims against a station in San Antonia, Tex., by Mexican-Americans there. The court yesterday said the FCC must hold a hearing in that instance, however, because the agency did not have enough factual information before it when it decided against such a proceeding.
In the Texas case, the FCC does not have to let the Mexican-American group participate in its further inquiry at any early stage, the court said. However, the Mexican-American group must be allowed to respond to the FCC inquiry once a public hearing is held, the court added.
U.S. Circuit Judge Spottswood Robinson III said in a dissenting opinion that while he agreed generally with much of the majority's opinion, he felt it was too narrow in scope and that the San Francisco case also should be sent back to the FCC.
"My difficulty with today's decision stems soley from the court's failure to utilize the occassion ... to review thoroughly the commission's present philosophy toward employment discrimination by its licensees," Robinson said.
He said the court put too much reliance upon the ability of the FCC to judge statistical innformation, and did not deal specifically with the possible issue of "subtle" disscrimination not reflected in statistics.
Robinson added that while the FCC is not the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in terms of its scope of dealing with racial discrimination, "evidence is evidence and no less that other tribunals must the commission give it due respect."
U.S. Circuit Judge David L. Bazelon issued a separate opinion in which he said he agreed with the majority's outcome, although "I am in accord with the tenor and purpose of much of what" Robinson also said.
"I would hope that the commission will heed Judge Robinson's remarks as it continues to evolve its approach in this critical area," Bazelon added.