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FCC v. Prometheus Radio Project

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), over several decades, has by regulation limited common ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations and of multiple broadcast outlets. In 2017, the FCC repealed or relaxed several of its ownership rules to permit greater consolidation in media markets. On judicial review, the Third Circuit vacated the FCC’s decision because the court concluded that the agency had not provided a reasoned basis to support its conclusion that the rule changes would have no adverse effect on ownership of broadcast stations by minorities and women. The FCC, along with industry parties, obtained Supreme Court review of the Third Circuit’s decision.

Public Citizen filed an amicus brief supporting the court of appeals’ decision. The brief argued that the Third Circuit faithfully applied bedrock administrative law principles in evaluating whether the FCC’s actions were supported by reasoned decisionmaking. The brief explained that the FCC has regarded diversity in broadcast ownership, including by minorities and women, as a component of its public interest analysis, and that the Third Circuit was correct when it concluded that the FCC must analyze that component in a reasoned way. The brief also urged the Supreme Court to reject the FCC’s and the broadcast industry’s arguments that the courts should put a judicial thumb on the scale in favor of the FCC’s decisions to deregulate broadcast ownership. As the brief explained, Congress’s decision to require the FCC to review its ownership rules every four years and to repeal or modify rules that the agency determined no longer served the public interest did not entitle the FCC to greater deference when it take deregulatory actions.

In April 2021, the Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit’s decision and upheld the FCC’s revised rules. The Court concluded that the FCC had reasonably explained its decision to relax or repeal its ownership rules, and that the FCC had adequately considered the effect of rule changes on minority and female ownership in light of the record evidence available to it. The Court declined to address the industry’s arguments that the FCC’s deregulatory actions should receive greater deference than the deference that courts traditionally afford to agency decisionmaking.