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Are All Advertisements for Automobiles and Gasoline Subject to the Fairness Doctrine?

June 1973

Citation: ELR 10083

In Los Angeles, a city perhaps more afflicted with air pollution than any other in the United States, citizens' groups are seeking a broader application of the Federal Communication Commissions' fairness doctrine that would brand all automobile advertising as a practice that in itself raises a controversial issue of public importance.If the groups are successful, Los Angeles television stations will have to provide air time for pointing out the environmental consequences of purchasing automobiles, as urged in commercials. The fairness doctrine, the requirements of which are generally well-known,1 may therefore afford a means of alerting the public to the dangers of continual reliance on private automobiles as the principal means of transportation.

The complainants, the Sierra Club and the National Council of Jewish Women, contend that KTTV of Los Angeles is obligated under the fairness doctrine to make presentations that describe the health hazards produced by automobile pollution and urge reduced automobile use and development and use of alternative modes of transportation.2 The complainants rely on Friends of the Earth v. FCC,3 which held that advertisements for large-engined automobiles and leaded gasoline present one side of a controversial issue of public importance and require broadcasters to give substantial treatment of significant opposing viewpoints. The court in Friends explained that "when there is undisputed evidence . . . that the hazards implicit in air pollution are enlarged and aggravated by such products," application of the doctrine to advertisements for those products is "inescapable." Because the health hazards caused by automobile pollution in Los Angeles are even more severe than those in New York, Friends seems clearly applicable to Los Angeles broadcasters. Complainants contend, however, that Friends' application to Los Angeles broadcasters cannot be limited to advertisements for large-engine automobiles and leaded gasoline, but must extend to all automobile and gasoline commercials. The controversial issue in the Los Angeles area, complainants say, is not whether to use automobiles that pollute to a greater or lesser extent as was the case in Friends, but whether automobile use as a whole should be reduced. In support of this proposition, complainants point out that the EPA Administrator himself has actually proposed gasoline rationing for the Los Angeles area. This proposal and the debate that followed it highlight the fact that a reduction in automobile use is urgently needed, and is supported by prominent groups and public officials in the community. EPA reports indicate that the standards for clean and healthful air established under the Clean Air Act for the Los Angeles area cannot be achieved by limiting road access to small-engine cars completely equipped with emission control devices. Therefore, the only viable way to achieve the important national policy of clean air in the Los Angeles area is by dramatic reduction of automobile use.

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