Supreme Court Will Review Media Ownership Rules

Protesters gather on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court - October 06, 2018 -  Getty-H 2018
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up cases examining media ownership rules. On Friday, the high court announced that it would be reviewing a lower court's direction to the FCC to examine how proposed deregulation would impact ownership of TV and radio stations by women and minorities.

As part of a mandate under the Telecommunications Act, the FCC examines ownership rules every four years. Back in 2002, the media regulatory agency 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. The FCC also reconsidered its restrictions of ownership of multiple local television stations. But the FCC's changes ran into the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which has since repeatedly put its foot down to attempts at deregulation.

"The Commission did not adequately consider the effect its sweeping rule changes will have on ownership of broadcast media by women and racial minorities," wrote Judge Thomas Ambro of the 3rd Circuit in a ruling last September.

Both the FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters then petitioned the high court to look at the opinion from the 3rd Circuit.

The U.S. government argues that the lower appellate 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, Solicitor General Noel Francisco led 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 warned 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"The panel’s rulings have saddled broadcast markets nationwide with outdated rules that the FCC has repeatedly concluded — and that the panel has acknowledged — are preventing struggling traditional outlets from entering transactions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," continued 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."

The justices — the composition of whom await a contentious confirmation battle over Ruth Bader Ginsburg's replacement — will now step in and opine. That the subject is the relationship between the judicial branch and administrative agencies makes it a particularly hot topic for a high court now dominated by conservative thinkers.

"Great news," tweeted FCC chairman Ajit Pai upon the news. "Hope #SCOTUS affirms authority Congress gave us to amend ownership rules in light of a media marketplace that’s changed dramatically since 1975—especially with local news outlets struggling more than ever."

The cases are Federal Communications Commission, et al. v. Prometheus Radio Project, et al. and National Association of Broadcasters, et al. v. Prometheus Radio Project, et al.