Supreme Court Rules in Favor of FCC, Reverses Third Circuit Decision


Photo by Mr. Kjetil Ree

Brizeyda Monterroso

Washington, DC (April 1, 2021) – In the case Federal Communications Commission v. Prometheus Radio Project, the United States Supreme Court issued an order to reverse a Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ judgement, stating that the 2017 FCC order to repeal or modify three of its ownership rules was within the FCC’s authority and was not likely to harm minority and female ownership, as Prometheus Radio Project has argued.


The Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rule, the Radio/Television Cross-Ownership Rule and the Local Television Ownership Rule were meant to restrict the number of radio stations, television stations and newspapers that one entity may own in a market and to promote competition. The FCC stated that it analyzed data from before and after the rules were enacted and found the evidence did not suggest lower levels of minority and female ownership after relaxation of the rules.


Prometheus, along with several other public interests, argue that the FCC’s order was “arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act” and that the FCC ignored two studies by the Free Press showing otherwise.


The Supreme Court found that the FCC did take these Free Press studies into account but interpreted them differently, showing a long term increase in minority and female ownership. The FCC also repeatedly asked for data proving otherwise but never received any.


The Supreme Court added, “The FCC adopted those rules in an early-cable and pre-Internet age when media sources were more limited. By the 1990s, however, the market for news and entertainment had changed dramatically. Technological advances led to a massive increase in alternative media options, such as cable television and the Internet. Those technological advances challenged the traditional dominance of daily print newspapers, local radio stations, and local television stations…” With the rise of new media outlets, the FCC concluded that the three ownership rules no longer served the agency’s goals of fostering competition, localism, and viewpoint diversity.


Justice Thomas concurred, writing that the FCC is not required to consider minority or female ownership in their reviews. “Nor could any court force the FCC to consider ownership diversity: Courts have no authority to impose “judge-made procedur[es]” on agencies,” he wrote; something lower courts repeatedly did. He added, “Even while trying to abide by the Third Circuit’s improper mandate, the FCC clarified in this proceeding that it considered ownership diversity a potential means to pursue viewpoint diversity, not a freestanding goal of its ownership rules.”


Section 202(h) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 directs the FCC to review it’s ownership rules every four years to ensure that the rules still serve the public interest of promoting competition.