Supreme Court Rules FCC Can Loosen Media Ownership Regulations

April 1, 2021 Updated: April 1, 2021

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling stipulating that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can relax media ownership rules and reverse a court decision handed down by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Before the April 1 Supreme Court ruling, the lower court ruling had blocked the FCC’s repeal of some media ownership regulations in 2017 for failing to consider the effects of the regulations on ownership by racial minorities and women. Critics of the industry have said further consolidation could limit media choices for consumers.

The Prometheus Radio Project and other public interest groups challenged the FCC’s changes, arguing that the body used flawed data.

However, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote (pdf) the unanimous decision, stated that the FCC made “a reasonable predictive judgment based on the evidence it had” in changing the rules.

“The FCC acknowledged the gaps in the data sets it relied on, and noted that, despite its repeated requests for additional data, it had received no countervailing evidence suggesting that changing the three ownership rules was likely to harm minority and female ownership,” he said.

“Prometheus also asserts that the FCC ignored two studies submitted by a commenter that purported to show that past relaxations of the ownership rules had led to decreases in minority and female ownership levels. But the record demonstrates that the FCC considered those studies and simply interpreted them differently.

“The FCC repeatedly asked commenters to submit empirical or statistical studies on the relationship between the ownership rules and minority and female ownership.

“Despite those requests, no commenter produced such evidence indicating that changing the rules was likely to harm minority and female ownership.”

It’s not clear whether the FCC will actually move to restrict some of the rules. The FCC is obligated to review media ownership limits every four years.

The FCC in 2017, under a chairman appointed by former President Donald Trump, got rid of a regulation that prevented firms from owning two TV stations in a market where at least eight independently owned stations were present. The commission in 2017 eliminated bans on ownership of a broadcast station and a print newspaper in the same market—and stopped a ban on owning a radio and TV station in the same market.

Prometheus Radio Project’s attorney, Andrew Jay Schwartzman, said in response: “Underlying this case is the FCC’s failure—over decades—to collect meaningful data about who really owns the nation’s broadcasting stations. We will now need to work with the Biden administration FCC to get that information.”