Persons or groups who challenge the racial policies of television or radio stations have a right to probe deeply into those policies before the Federal Communications Commission decides whether the broadcasting company's license should be renewed, a U.S. appeals court here has ruled.
If the ruling stands, it would have a significant impact on the way in which challenges to the FCC-issued licenses are handled, according to broadcast lawyers. The current procedure for renewal of broadcast licenses does not allow any direct probing of the station by the group raising the challenge, but merely allows the charge of bias to be made and the station to respond before the FCC decides to hold a hearing on the issue.
The ruling was one of the two opinions released recently by the U.S. Court of Appeals in broadcast cases.
In the second, the appeals court ordered the FCC to hold a hearing into a challenge by the Black Broadcasting Coalition of Richmond into the license of WTVR-AM-FM-TV in the Richmond area.
The coalition had contended that the station had been biased in its employment effort during and after the period of its 1969-72 license, and opposed renewal of the license.
In an unsigned opinion, the appeals court said the FCC should have acted promptly on the request and should have taken a "hard look" at the challenge.
Instead, said the judges, the FCC "delayed for three years" and determined on data concerning the station after the 1972 that no hearing was required on the bias challenge.
The appeals judges said WTVR's response to the challenge was inadequate for the FCC to make a determination on the station's racial policies without holding a hearing on the issue. "Where over discrimination is responsibly claimed and a licensee's minority employment during the license term is (below a certain level,) a strong case for a hearing on the licensee's compliance with its obligation not to discriminate is made out," the judges said.
". . .(T) here must be a more meaningful accounting for conduct during the contested license period and more exacting standards established for the future," the judges added in ordering the hearing in the Richmond case.
In the other opinion involving the general issue of pre-FCC hearing "discovery" by groups who challenge broadcast license, the appeals courts said that reasonable challenges to the station's racial policies require detailed answers to the challenge.
The majority opinion, written by U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell, said the pre-FCC hearing procedure is necessary so the FCC could make its decision on whether to hold a hearing on the basis of facts.
Currently, Gesell said, "the commission often places reliance upon a licensee's untested explanations of poor past performance and accepts its generalized statements of expectation for the future."
Such a procedure leaves major issues "only superficially explored," Gesell added.
". . . In an area as vital as racial discrimination, the dynamics of the problem require (the FCC) to decide on adequate information," Gesell continued. "The bona fides of stations seeking to avoid a contested renewal hearing must be factually tested if reasonable grounds exist . . . to believe that the station's employment is discriminatory."
The ruling involved past challenges to a radio station in San Antonio, Tex., by a Mexican-American group there, and a challenge to a San Francisco radio station by an Asian-American group there.