METRO BROADCASTING V. FCC, 497 U. S. 547 (1990)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Metro Broadcasting v. FCC, 497 U.S. 547 (1990)

Metro Broadcasting, Inc. v.

Federal Communications Commission

Nos. 89-453, 89-700

Argued March 28, 1990

Decided June 27, 1990

497 U.S. 547


These cases consider the constitutionality of two minority preference policies adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). First, the FCC awards an enhancement for minority ownership and participation in management, which is weighed together with all other relevant factors in comparing mutually exclusive applications for licenses for new radio or television broadcast stations. Second, the FCC's so-called "distress sale" policy allows a radio or television broadcaster whose qualifications to hold a license have come into question to transfer that license before the FCC resolves the matter in a noncomparative hearing, but only if the transferee is a minority enterprise that meets certain requirements. The FCC adopted these policies in an attempt to satisfy its obligation under the Communications Act of 1934 to promote diversification of programming, taking the position that its past efforts to encourage minority participation in the broadcast industry had not resulted in sufficient broadcast diversity, and that this situation was detrimental not only to the minority audience but to all of the viewing and listening public. Metro Broadcasting, Inc., the petitioner in No. 89-453, sought review in the Court of Appeals of an FCC order awarding a new television license to Rainbow Broadcasting in a comparative proceeding, which action was based on the ruling that the substantial enhancement granted Rainbow because of its minority ownership outweighed factors favoring Metro. The court remanded the appeal for further consideration in light of the FCC's separate, ongoing Docket 86-484 inquiry into the validity of its minority ownership policies. Prior to completion of that inquiry, however, Congress enacted the FCC appropriations legislation for fiscal year 1988, which prohibited the FCC from spending any appropriated funds to examine or change its minority policies. Thus, the FCC closed its Docket 86-484 inquiry and reaffirmed its grant of the license to Rainbow, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Shurberg Broadcasting of Hartford, Inc., one of the respondents in No. 89-700,

Page 497 U. S. 548

sought review in the Court of Appeals of an FCC order approving Faith Center, Inc.'s distress sale of its television license to Astroline Communications Company Limited Partnership, a minority enterprise. Disposition of the appeal was delayed pending resolution of the Docket 86484 inquiry by the FCC, which, upon closing that inquiry as discussed supra, reaffirmed its order allowing the distress sale to Astroline. The court then invalidated the distress sale policy, ruling that it deprived Shurberg, a nonminority applicant for a license in the relevant market, of its right to equal protection under the Fifth Amendment.

Held: The FCC policies do not violate equal protection, since they bear the imprimatur of longstanding congressional support and direction and are substantially related to the achievement of the important governmental objective of broadcast diversity. Pp. 497 U. S. 563-601.

(a) It is of overriding significance in these cases that the minority ownership programs have been specifically approved -- indeed mandated -- by Congress. In light of that fact, this Court owes appropriate deference to Congress' judgment, see Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448 U. S. 448, 448 U. S. 472-478, 448 U. S. 490, 448 U. S. 491 (opinion of Burger, C.J.); id. at 448 U. S. 500-510, 448 U. S. 515-516, n. 14 (Powell, J., concurring); id. at 448 U. S. 517-520 (MARSHALL, J., concurring in judgment), and need not apply strict scrutiny analysis, see id. at 448 U. S. 474 (opinion of Burger, C.J.); id. at 448 U. S. 519 (MARSHALL, J., concurring in judgment). Benign race-conscious measures mandated by Congress -- even if those measures are not "remedial" in the sense of being designed to compensate victims of past governmental or societal discrimination -- are constitutionally permissible to the extent that they serve important governmental objectives within the power of Congress and are substantially related to the achievement of those objectives. Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., 488 U. S. 469, distinguished and reconciled. Pp. 497 U. S. 563-566.

(b) The minority ownership policies serve an important governmental objective. Congress and the FCC do not justify the policies strictly as remedies for victims of demonstrable discrimination in the communications media, but rather have selected them primarily to promote broadcast diversity. This Court has long recognized as axiomatic that broadcasting may be regulated in light of the rights of the viewing and listening audience, and that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the public welfare. Associated Press v. United States, 326 U. S. 1, 326 U. S. 20. Safeguarding the public's right to receive a diversity of views and information over the airwaves is therefore an integral component of the FCC's mission, serves important First Amendment values, and is, at the very least, an important governmental objective that is a sufficient basis for the policies in question. Pp. 497 U. S. 566-568.

Page 497 U. S. 549

(c) The minority ownership policies are substantially related to the achievement of the Government's interest in broadcast diversity. First, the FCC's conclusion that there is an empirical nexus between minority ownership and greater diversity, which is consistent with its longstanding view that ownership is a prime determinant of the range of programming available, is a product of its expertise and is entitled to deference. Second, by means of the recent appropriations legislation and by virtue of a long history of support for minority participation in the broadcasting industry, Congress has also made clear its view that the minority ownership policies advance the goal of diverse programming. Great weight must be given to the joint determination of the FCC and Congress. Pp. 497 U. S. 569-579.

(d) The judgment that there is a link between expanded minority ownership and broadcast diversity does not rest on impermissible stereotyping. Neither Congress nor the FCC assumes that, in every case, minority ownership and management will lead to more minority-oriented programming or to the expression of a discrete "minority viewpoint" on the airwaves. Nor do they pretend that all programming that appeals to minorities can be labeled "minority" or that programming that might be so described does not appeal to nonminorities. Rather, they maintain simply that expanded minority ownership of broadcast outlets will, in the aggregate, result in greater broadcast diversity. This judgment is corroborated by a host of empirical evidence suggesting that an owner's minority status influences the selection of topics for news coverage and the presentation of editorial viewpoint, especially on matters of particular concern to minorities, and has a special impact on the way in which images of minorities are presented. In addition, studies show that a minority owner is more likely to employ minorities in managerial and other important roles where they can have an impact on station policies. The FCC's policies are thus a product of analysis, rather than a stereotyped reaction based on habit. Cf. Fullilove, supra, 448 U.S. at 448 U. S. 604, n. 4. The type of reasoning employed by the FCC and Congress is not novel, but is utilized in many areas of the law, including the selection of jury venires on the basis of a fair cross section and the reapportionment of electoral districts to preserve minority voting strength. Pp. 497 U. S. 579-584.

(e) The minority ownership policies are in other relevant respects substantially related to the goal of promoting broadcast diversity. The FCC adopted and Congress endorsed minority ownership preferences only after long study, painstaking consideration of all available alternatives, and the emergence of evidence demonstrating that race-neutral means had not produced adequate broadcasting diversity. Moreover, the FCC did not act precipitately in devising the policies, having undertaken

Page 497 U. S. 550

thorough evaluations in 1960, 1971, and 1978 before adopting them. Furthermore, the considered nature of the FCC's judgment in selecting these particular policies is illustrated by the fact that it has rejected other more expansive types of minority preferences -- e.g., set-asides of certain frequencies for minority broadcasters. In addition, the minority ownership policies are aimed directly at the barriers that minorities face in entering the broadcasting industry. Thus, the FCC assigned a preference to minority status in the comparative licensing proceeding in order to compensate for a dearth of minority broadcasting experience. Similarly, the distress sale policy addresses the problem of inadequate access to capital by effectively lowering the sale price of existing stations and the problem of lack of information regarding license availability by providing existing licensees with an incentive to seek out minority buyers. The policies are also appropriately limited in extent and duration and subject to reassessment and reevaluation before renewal, since Congress has manifested its support for them through a series of appropriations acts of finite duration, and has continued to hold hearings on the subject of minority ownership. Provisions for administrative and judicial review also guarantee that the policies are applied correctly in individual cases and that there will be frequent opportunities to revisit their merits. Finally, the policies impose only slight burdens on nonminorities. Award of a preference contravenes no legitimate, firmly rooted expectation of competing applicants, since the limited number of frequencies available means that no one has First Amendment right to a license, and the granting of licenses requires consideration of public interest factors. Nor does the distress sale policy impose an undue burden on nonminorities, since it may be invoked only with respect to a small fraction of broadcast licenses, only when the licensee chooses to sell out at a low price rather than risk a hearing, and only when no competing application has been filed. It is not a quota or fixed quantity set-aside, and nonminorities are free to compete for the vast remainder of other available license opportunities. Pp. 497 U. S. 584-600.

No. 89-453, 277 U.S.App.D.C. 134, 873 F.2d 347 (CADC 1989), affirmed and remanded; No. 89-700, 278 U.S.App.D.C. 24, 876 F.2d 902 (CADC 1989), reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 497 U. S. 601. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and SCALIA and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, post, p. 497 U. S. 602. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 497 U. S. 631.

Page 497 U. S. 552

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