FCC Takes Marathon Battle Over Media Ownership Rules to Supreme Court

Backed by Donald Trump appointees at the Department of Justice, the media regulator was previously told to do a better job examining how deregulation would impact ownership of TV and radio stations by women and minorities.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty
FCC chairman Ajit Pai

The Federal Communications Commission, backed by Donald Trump appointees at the Department of Justice, is asking the Supreme Court to weigh in on what's become a rather lengthy fight over media ownership rules.

All the way back in 2002, the media regulatory agency reviewed rules as part of a mandate under the Telecommunications Act. The FCC decided that in light of new media sources like the internet, it no longer made sense anymore to maintain a ban on a given company owning a local newspaper and broadcast station in a single market. But the repeal of the ban ran into the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which has since repeatedly put its foot down to attempts at deregulation. "Here we are again," began an opinion last Sept. 23 by Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro, who faulted the FCC for failing to adequately explain how the rule change would lead to more female and minority ownership of media outlets.

The FCC — or at least its current leadership including chairman Ajit Pai — believes that the Third Circuit has overstepped itself by turning a review of rules meant to ensure healthy competition of viewpoints into a test of what best promotes diversity.

In a cert petition filed Friday, Solicitor General Noel Francisco leads a team knocking the lower appellate court for having "flouted bedrock administrative-law principles that require judicial deference to agency policy choices, as well as this Court’s repeated FCC-specific admonitions that courts must respect the Commission’s reasonable judgments about what measures will best serve the public interest."

The U.S. government further warns of far-reaching consequences for the broadcast market.

"The panel’s rulings have saddled broadcast markets nationwide with outdated rules that the FCC has repeatedly concluded — and that the panel has acknowledged — are preventing struggling traditional outlets from entering transactions that would allow them to retain economic vitality," continues the petition. "The panel’s vacaturs have also had the perverse consequence of preventing the agency from studying the effects of its revised ownership rules on women and minorities, thereby gathering the very data the panel insists are necessary for informed rulemaking."

Here's the full petition.

Separately, the National Association of Broadcasters appears to be making its own bid for review from the high court. The trade organization previously had applied for an extension with a petition due Saturday.