New Article at Harvard JLPP: The FCC’s Transaction Reviews May Violate the First Amendment

by on June 8, 2016 · 0 comments

The FCC’s transaction reviews have received substantial scholarly criticism lately. The FCC has increasingly used its license transaction reviews as an opportunity to engage in ad hoc merger reviews that substitute for formal rulemaking. FCC transaction conditions since 2000 have ranged from requiring AOL-Time Warner to make future instant messaging services interoperable, to price controls for broadband for low-income families, to mandating merging parties to donate $1 million to public safety initiatives.

In the last few months alone,

  • Randy May and Seth Cooper of the Free State Foundation wrote a piece that the transaction reviews contravene rule of law norms.
  • T. Randolph Beard et al. at the Phoenix Center published a research paper about how the FCC’s informal bargaining during mergers has become much more active and politically motivated in recent years.
  • Derek Bambauer, law professor at the University of Arizona, published a law review article that criticized the use of informal agency actions to pressure companies to act in certain ways. These secretive pressures “cloak what is in reality state action in the guise of private choice.”

This week, in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, my colleague Christopher Koopman and I added to this recent scholarship on the FCC’s controversial transaction reviews.

We echo the argument that the FCC merger policies undermine the rule of law. Firms have no idea which policies they’ll need to comply with to receive transaction approval. We also note that the FCC is motivated to shift from formal regulation, which is time consuming and subject to judicial review, to “regulation by transaction,” which has fewer restraints on agency action. The FCC and the courts have put few meaningful limits on what can be coerced from merging firms. Many concessions from merging firms are policies that the FCC is simply unwilling to accomplish via formal rulemaking or, sometimes, is outright prohibited by law from regulating. Since a firm’s concessions in this coercive process are nominally voluntary, they typically can’t sue.

We point out, further, that the FCC has a potentially damaging legal issue on its hands. Since the agency is now extracting concessions related to content distribution and TV and radio programming, its transaction review authority may be presumptively unconstitutional and subject to facial First Amendment challenges. That means many parties can challenge the law, not simply the ones burdened by conditions (who fear FCC retaliation).

Content-neutral licensing laws, like the FCC’s transaction review authority, are presumptively unconstitutional when there’s a risk  that public officials will intimidate speakers about content. We cite for this proposition the Supreme Court’s decision in City of Lakewood v. Plain Dealer Publishing Co., a 1988 case striking down as unconstitutional a city requirement that newspapers seek a public interest determination from public officials before installing newsracks. As the Court said, for rules with a “nexus to expression,”

a facial [First Amendment] challenge lies whenever a licensing law gives a government official or agency substantial power to discriminate based on the content or viewpoint of speech by suppressing disfavored speech or disliked speakers.

The public officials in City of Lakewood hadn’t even pressured newspapers about content; the mere potential for intimidation was a constitutional violation. If the agency’s authority was challenged, the FCC would be in worse shape than the public officials in City of Lakewood. Unlike those local officials, the FCC has used licensing to pressure firms to add certain types of programming. So the law certainly has the nexus to expression that the Supreme Court requires for a facial challenge.

We highlight, for instance, the many concessions related to content in the 2010 Comcast-NBCU merger. Comcast-NBCU conceded to create children’s, public interest, and Spanish-language TV and video-on-demand programming, relinquish editorial control over Hulu programming, and spend millions of dollars on digital literacy and FDA nutritional TV public service announcements. In that merger and many others, the FCC conditioned approval on compliance with open access and net neutrality policies. As I and others have pointed out, net neutrality rules also threaten free speech rights.

We conclude with some policy recommendations to avoid a constitutional problem for the FCC, including congressional repeal of the FCC’s transaction review authority. We point out that the FCC actually has Clayton Act authority to review common carrier mergers, but the FCC refuses to use it, likely because the agency views traditional competition analysis as too constraining. In our view, unless or until the FCC promulgates predictable guidelines about what is relevant in a transaction review and stays away from content distribution issues, the FCC’s transaction review authority is vulnerable to legal challenge.

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