The Federal Communications Commission is being asked to deny Carl Lindner's attempt to take over Taft Broadcasting Co. on the grounds that the Cincinnati financier is unfit to own radio and television stations because of a run-in with the Securities and Exchange Commission several years ago.

The request represents the first significant challenge to a change in FCC policy last year that narrowed the issues of "character" that the agency considers in granting broadcasting licenses. The challenge was raised by Andrew J. Schwartzman, executive director of Media Access Project, a Washington legal group that filed the petition with the FCC on behalf of Action for Children's Television and a group of people from Portland, Ore., where two of the Taft stations are located.

Schwartzman said his group had considered challenging the new policy in court, but decided instead to pick a case in which it could bring the issues directly before the FCC. He said the group wants to force the FCC to hold a hearing into Lindner's fitness to be a licensee.

"The commission is mandated by law to make inquiry into whether {the Lindner group's} principals possess the requisite character to become one of the nation's largest holders of broadcast licenses," the petition said. The petition said Lindner's group has "the right to prove at hearing that ... they are qualified to become trustees permitted to hold this immensely valuable public property. By establishing policies which make this inquiring impossible, the commission has violated its own obligation to the American public."

Prior to the change in policy in December 1985, the FCC put applicants for broadcast licenses to a wide variety of character tests. Mark Fowler, who stepped down as FCC chairman earlier this year and now is a lawyer in private practice in Washington, said the commission changed its policy because the previous standards were too broad and inconsistent.

"We wanted to look at things that go to the truthfulness of an application before the commission; that is, would he lie before the commission," Fowler said in an interview yesterday.

The new policy specifies that the character issue only can be raised if an applicant has been convicted of fraud or perjury involving the FCC or another government agency or convicted of anticompetitive or antitrust violations involving broadcast properties, as well as some other, more specific instances.

"Everything else has to do with things that are better handled by another primary forum," Fowler said. "We're not going to sweep into the net any kind of violation of every kind of law and say that constitutes a character defect."

The policy also requires that the cases it covers be "adjudicated," which excludes cases in which there has been a consent decree, Fowler said. In a typical consent decree, a person accused of a violation does not admit guilt, but promises to obey the law in the future.

"It can't be simply mere allegations that somebody has done something bad," Fowler said of the new policy. "It has to result in final adjudication."

The Media Access Project argues that Lindner should be reviewed because of charges brought against him by the SEC in 1979 alleging that he violated securities laws by failing to report to shareholders of American Financial Corp., one of Lindner's companies, that he, his family and associates had received favorable financial treatment from the company. It was alleged that a bank owned by AFC had made loans to Lindner and some of his friends and associates at preferential rates and that members of Lindner's family and his friends had received highly profitable contracts and other benefits from the company without proper notification of shareholders.

Lindner settled the charges that same year in a consent agreement with the SEC.

Lindner, whose American Financial Corp. controls or owns major stakes in several companies, including Penn Central Corp., agreed with a group of partners last month to take over Taft for $1.45 billion. Taft, based in Cincinnati, is one of the nation's largest owners of broadcast stations, with 7 TV stations, 15 radio stations and various television and movie production and distribution interests. Under the takeover agreement, some of the stations and other operations would go to Lindner's partners, leaving him with the bulk of the company.

The deal is expected to be completed later this summer, but the petition filed yesterday asks the FCC to hold hearings on Lindner's fitness to take over Taft.

The petition complains that under the FCC's new rules on character, the FCC does not have to consider the charges raised by the SEC before the signing of the consent decree.

"The commission must examine conduct," the petition said. "Petitioners believe that the Communications Act of 1934 requires that an evidentiary hearing be designated to consider whether the substantial and material questions of fact as to whether {Lindner and his partners} possess the requisite character to be commission licensees."

A spokeswoman for Lindner said he was out of the country yesterday and declined comment on the case. FCC officials also declined to comment.

The petition notes that in 1979, shortly after the consent decree, the commission raised questions about Lindner's ownership of a small stake in Gannett Co., a major owner of broadcast properties. It said at the time that it viewed Lindner's problems with the SEC "with concern," but chose not to pursue the matter because his holding in Gannett was relatively small. However, the commission said at the time, "further action {would be} warranted" if Lindner held a controlling interest or management position at Gannett.

Schwartzman said the FCC's interest in Lindner then and its apparent disinterest now reflect the changes in the commission's policy on character issues. "It's clear that in 1979 this would have been a hearing, and it's clear that in 1987 this would not be a hearing," he said.

Fowler agreed. "In 1979, they had a different character policy in effect," he said.

The MAP petition raises several hypothetical cases in which it claims that, under the new policy, all sorts of unsavory characters could become broadcast licensees without FCC character challenges. It says would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley technically qualifies, as do some of Wall Street's insider traders.

"Depending on the plea bargain, such a person may well not have been adjudicated guilty of a crime the commission considers to be one of dishonesty," the petition said. "It is not at all far-fetched to hypothesize a newly retired young stock trader using the remains of his or her bankroll and a jailhouse telephone to purchase a broadcast property."