Running for office shouldn’t be a ‘get out of censorship free’ card

There are a few things we can usually expect from Super Bowl commercials: the talking animals, the scantily clad Go Daddy women and basically anything involving Doritos.

This year, though, Super Bowl viewers in some parts of the country are in for some ads that aren’t quite so lighthearted.

Longtime pro-life activist Randall Terry is currently mongering the funds to air extremely graphic anti-abortion ads during the massively watched sporting event.

“He knows the images are disturbing, and that’s the point: to emboss in someone’s mind a gruesome image of abortion in hopes that it affects their philosophy or advice to loved ones later,” said Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League last week in a CNN article.

If your stomach is too weak for this stuff, just take my word for it: These images certainly do emboss.

But all questions of abortion aside, an underlying issue exists here: that the stations Terry sold ads to don’t have the option to decline running them.

Provided that the advertisements don’t involve legally-defined obscenity, Section 315 of the Federal Communications Act prohibits broadcasters from censoring candidate speech. Terry is claiming to be a candidate running against President Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries.

The only way to get out of publishing these ads, then, is for broadcasters to prove that the candidate doesn’t have a legitimate campaign. NBC Chicago has said this is the case in Terry’s run for president.

After running a Terry ad earlier this year, WCVB-TV in Boston “responded”: to viewer comments on their website: “We are strictly prohibited by federal law, as regulated by the FCC, to censor any ad placed by a political candidate for federal office even if it is libelous, inflammatory or otherwise offensive to the community.”

And not only that, reasonable access provisions of the Communications Act prohibit stations from diminishing viewership by running ads like this only during late-night hours. Stations are left with the single choice of running a pre-ad warning.

Similar questions of the loophole arose in 2010, when a fringe candidate in Missouri’s U.S. Senate race sold “anti-Semitic”:, white supremacy-tinged ads to broadcasters. Though stations eventually protested the campaign’s legitimacy, others had already reluctantly aired them.

Proving to be a legally qualified candidate isn’t as difficult as it might seem. Someone needs to have the requisite qualifications and paperwork needed for federal office. Presidential candidates also need to show they are a “bona fide candidate” to merit censor-free ads.

“Basically, Terry must do enough old-school campaigning — making speeches, distributing literature, issuing press releases, etc. — to prove that his candidacy is not a stunt. Terry claims he has done so; NBC Chicago isn’t so sure,” “said”: Maya Dusenbery in a Mother Jones article this week.

Which means that any person who can figure out how to throw a reasonably genuine-looking presidential campaign together can air basically whatever they want on public television.

“The integrity of the process is at stake,” “said”: Attorney Mark Sableman in a Kansas City Star article about the Missouri hate ads case. “If anybody can have this very unusual right (of access) without truly being a bona fide candidate, then our whole political process has been undercut.”

I think he’s right. The days of our presidential candidates being the beacons of honesty, integrity and having utmost concern for the American public are over. I have to guess that in enacting this law, lawmakers assumed that any viable candidate would not want to be associated with speech that could be deemed overtly disturbing or inappropriate. Maybe that assumption is no longer substantiated. That’s giving politicians (and possibly even fake politicians) a whole lot of power — do they deserve that power?

_Megan is a senior in Media._