Watchdogs Urge FCC to Enforce Broadcaster Mandate to Disclose Funders Behind Super PAC & ‘Dark Money’ Ads


Today, the Campaign Legal Center joined the Sunlight Foundation and Common Cause in urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take immediate action to enforce the public file and sponsorship identification requirements of Sections 315 and 317 of the Communications Act.  Enforcing the broadcaster mandate would require stations to disclose the funders behind political ads run by Super PACs and ‘dark money’ groups. Section 315 outlines the requirements for what is included in a broadcast television station’s publicly available political file regarding advertisements run by candidates as well as advertisements “relating to any political matter of national importance.”  Section 317 requires broadcasters to disclose to their listeners or viewers the “true identity of the person or persons, or corporation, committee, association or other unincorporated group, or other entity” paying for the ad.

The groups are represented by the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center.   

“With the 2016 elections looming, viewers need meaningful information to make up their own minds regarding the messages they are hearing from candidates and outside groups,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center.  “These statues have been on the books for decades, and are entirely congruent with the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United and subsequent cases that upheld robust disclosure requirements.  However, the FCC’s failure to update the implementing regulations combined with the agency’s weak enforcement mean the FCC’s disclosure regime is woefully inadequate and ill-serves the American people by leaving them completely in the dark with regards to hundreds of millions of dollars in political ads being broadcast over the public airwaves.”

As of 2014, all broadcasters are required to post the political files required under Section 315 of the Communications Act on the FCC website.  As for the “sponsorship identification” rules in Section 317, the FCC has not updated the implementing regulations to ensure that those individuals and interest groups funding political ads, especially those paid for by dark-money groups, are in fact being disclosed.

As the Supreme Court in Citizens United stated, disclosure is “justified based on a governmental interest in ‘providing the electorate with information’ about the sources of election-related spending.”   The decision went on to note “that there was evidence in the record that independent groups were running election-related advertisements ‘while hiding behind dubious and misleading names.’”

“These sections of the Communications Act are crucial to protecting voters’ right to know by whom they are being persuaded,” added McGehee.  “Viewers have more information about what ingredients are in their favorite soft drink, than they do about those trying to influence their vote.”  

To read the letter, click here.