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U.S. Supreme Court

Community Television v. Gottfried, 459 U.S. 498 (1983)

Community Television of Southern California v. Gottfried

No. 81-298

Argued October 12, 1982

Decided February 22, 1983*

459 U.S. 498


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provides that no otherwise qualified handicapped individual shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Respondent Gottfried (respondent) filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requesting it to deny renewal of a public television station's license because the station allegedly (1) had failed to discharge its obligation under the Communications Act of 1934 to ascertain the problems, needs, and interests of the deaf and hearing-impaired population within its service area, and (2) had violated § 504. Respondent filed similar objections to the renewal of seven commercial television station licenses. Consolidating all eight proceedings, the FCC held that the licensees' efforts to ascertain the special needs of the community were adequate; that the facts alleged by respondent did not give rise to a substantial and material question whether any of the licensees had abused its discretion in its programming; that § 504 did not apply to the commercial licensees; and that, while the public television station might be governed by § 504, the allegations against that station under § 504 were premature unless and until the agency with authority to enforce compliance determined that the station had violated the Rehabilitation Act. The Court of Appeals affirmed the portion of the FCC's order relating to the commercial stations, but vacated the renewal of the public station's license and remanded for further proceedings. Because the public station, as a recipient of federal financial assistance, was under a duty to comply with § 504, the court, while not holding that the station had violated § 504 or that its programming efforts were less satisfactory than the commercial licensees' efforts, held that, nevertheless, a stricter "public interest" standard should be applied to a licensee covered by § 504 than to a commercial licensee, and that the FCC could not find the service of public stations to be adequate to justify license renewal without at least inquiring into their efforts to meet the programming needs of the hearing impaired.

Page 459 U. S. 499

Held: Section 504 does not require the FCC to review a public television station's license renewal application under a different standard than applies to a commercial licensee's renewal application. Pp. 459 U. S. 508-512.

(a) Congress did not intend the Rehabilitation Act to impose any special enforcement obligation on the FCC. The FCC is not a funding agency, and has no responsibility for enforcing § 504. Moreover, there is not a word in the Act's legislative history suggesting that the Act was intended to alter the FCC's standard for reviewing the programming decisions of public television licensees. Pp. 459 U. S. 508-510.

(b) The fact that a public television station has a duty to comply with the Rehabilitation Act does not support the conclusion that the FCC must evaluate the station's service to the handicapped community by a more stringent standard than that applicable to commercial stations. P. 459 U. S. 511.

(c) Unless and until a differential standard has been promulgated with respect to public television stations as against commercial stations, the FCC acts within its authority when it declines to impose a greater obligation to provide special programming for the hearing impaired on a public licensee than on a commercial licensee. Pp. 459 U. S. 511-512.

210 U.S.App.D.C. 184, 655 F.2d 297, reversed in part.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 459 U. S. 513.

Page 459 U. S. 500

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