Federal Communications Commission v. League of Women Voters
Decided on July 2, 1984; 468 US 364


I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: 1st Amendment (press, speech, association)

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did Congress, by amending Section 399 of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, pass a law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 (Act) established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a nonprofit corporation, to disburse federal funds to noncommercial television and radio stations in support of station operations and educational programming. Section 399 of the Act, as amended by the Public Broadcasting Amendments Act of 1981, forbids any noncommercial educational station that receives a grant from the CPB to "engage in editorializing." The statute defined “editorializing” as a statement by the broadcaster representing “the official standpoint of station management.”

The League of Women Voters of California, et al. (Appellees), brought suit in Federal District Court challenging the constitutionality of § 399. Appellees questioned whether the federal government’s subsidy of public broadcasters gave it the right to ban a certain type of expression under Congress’ Article I spending powers. The District Court for the Central District of California granted summary judgment in the appellees' favor, holding that § 399 violates the First Amendment.

The Federal Communications Commission (Appellants) appealed the District Court's decision and the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Frederic D. Woocher argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief were Bill Lann Lee and John R. Phillips.
Samuel A. Alito, Jr., argued the cause for appellant. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Lee, Assistant Attorney General McGrath, Acting Assistant Attorney General Willard, Deputy Solicitor General Bator, Anthony J. Steinmeyer, and Michael Jay Singer.
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Briefs urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union by Burt Neuborne and Charles S. Sims; CBS, Inc., et al. by J. Roger Wollenberg, Timothy B. Dyk, Erwin G. Krasnow, and J. Laurent Scharff; National Black Media Coalition by Charles M. Firestone; Public Broadcasting Service, et al. by Lawrence A. Horn, Nancy H. Hendry, and Theodore D. Frank.
A brief urging reversal was filed for Mobil Corp. by Larry S. Solomon


IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"[B]roadcasters are engaged in a vital and independent form of communicative activity, the First Amendment must inform and give shape to the manner in which Congress exercises its regulatory power... The restriction imposed by [section] 399 is specifically directed at a form of speech - the expression of editorial opinions... singles out noncommercial broadcasters and denies them the right to address their chosen audience on matters of public importance... The ban impermissibly sweeps within it a wide range of speech by wholly private stations on topics that do not take a directly partisan stand or that have nothing whatever to do with federal, state, or local government… [O]verinclusiveness and underinclusiveness of [section] 399's ban also undermines the likelihood of a genuine governmental interest in preventing private groups from propagating their own views via public broadcasting... [It] cannot be justified on the basis of Congress' spending power as simply determining that Congress will not subsidize public broadcasting station editorials...

Affirmed: Section 399's ban on editorializing violates the First Amendment."
Justice Vote: 5 Pro vs. 4 Con

  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion
  • O’Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion
  • Powell, L. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined Rehnquist’s dissent)
  • White, B. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion, joined Rehnquist’s dissent)
  • Stevens, J. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the United States Supreme Court affirmed the ruling in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.