A longstanding law barring public broadcast television stations from airing paid political or public-issue ads has been deemed unconstitutional by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which, in a 2-1 vote, ruled that prohibition violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment.  The court stated: “Public issue and political speech in particular is at the very core of the First Amendment’s protection … Public issue and political advertisements pose no threat of ‘commercialization.'”

The issue was initially raised by Minority Television Project after the FCC  levied a $10,000 fine on the California nonprofit for running paid advertisements from companies such as State Farm Insurance, General Motors and Chevrolet on a San Francisco public television channel. The FCC argued in court that if public broadcasters become dependent on paid ads, they would reduce their educational and public service programming, replacing these with offerings that would draw wider audiences and enhance advertising revenue.

But  Judge Carlos Bea, writing for the majority (Minority Television Project Inc v. FCC, Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 09-17311,) replied: “There is no evidence in the record — much less evidence which was in the record before Congress — to support Congress’s specific determination that public issue and political advertisements impact the programming decisions of public broadcast stations to a degree that justifies the comprehensive advertising restriction at issue here.” The appellate court’s April 12 decision left intact the $10,000 fine against the Minority Television Project.

Judge Richard Paez dissented, saying the lure of profitable advertising could muddle public broadcasting’s educational mission, writing: “For almost 60 years, commercial public broadcasters have been effectively insulated from the lure of paid advertising. The court’s judgment will disrupt this policy and could jeopardize the future of public broadcasting. I am not persuaded that the First Amendment mandates such an outcome.”

Bloomberg news service said it had received an email from FCC spokesman Charles Miller in which he said the agency is reviewing the appellate decision and will defer regarding next steps to the Department of Justice.