Don’t Be A Fool Tomorrow


Tomorrow is not only the start of a new month, it’s the day many radio hosts try to grab headlines by playing April Fool’s jokes on listeners. It’s Inevitable that some host will go too far and get into trouble. We thought this was a great opportunity for to revisit and share John Garziglia’s column where he details the FCC hoax rule (Section 73.1217# and offers up a little advice on how to avoid getting yourself and your station into trouble tomorrow.
(by John Garziglia – From 3/29/2013)

The FCC’s broadcast hoax rule (Section 73.1217) prohibits the broadcast of false information concerning a crime or a catastrophe when: (1) the broadcaster knows the information is false; (2) it is foreseeable that the broadcast of the information will cause substantial public harm; and (3) the broadcast of the information does, in fact, directly cause substantial public harm.

Rather than writing the usual “Groundhog Day” type of column that appears every year at this time from communications attorneys warning against April Fools Day stunts that violate the FCC’s broadcast hoax rule, I would rather take the approach of what is allowed on April 1st.  Such an approach, however, is difficult.  Even if the broadcast hoax rule itself, which is paraphrased above, is not specifically violated, there are many other April 1st stunts such as joke contests, or use of EAS tones even if to warn of sunshine and blue skies, that would violate FCC rule sections and policies.

The FCC’s broadcast hoax rule, adopted in 1992, is specific.  The prohibited “public harm” that occurs as a result of the broadcast of false information concerning a crime or catastrophe must begin immediately.  Further, it must cause direct and actual damage to property or to the health or safety of the general public, or diversion of law enforcement or other public health and safety authorities from their duties.

The FCC says that “the public harm will be deemed foreseeable if the licensee could expect with a significant degree of certainty that public harm would occur.”  Further, the FCC states that a “crime” is any act or omission that makes the offender subject to criminal punishment by law, and a “catastrophe” is a disaster or imminent disaster involving a violent or sudden event.

The broadcast hoax rule was adopted expressly to prohibit broadcast hoaxes that are harmful to the public.   A radio broadcast that is harmful to the public also invariably exposes the station to potential civil and criminal liability.

Interestingly, the FCC, in adopting the prohibition against broadcast hoaxes, gave as an example of a broadcast that would not be covered under the rule, a broadcast about amoebas invading the city, stating that this was an “obvious hoax”.  On the other hand, the FCC noted that the broadcast of a mock nuclear attack on the United States with a siren sounder, was not an obvious hoax and merited a $25K fine.  Likewise, a false report of a nearby volcanic eruption merited an admonishment to a radio station prior to the adoption of the actual hoax rule (this was a Los Angeles station – perhaps if the station had been in the middle of Kansas it would have been obvious?).

In adopting its hoax rule, the FCC stated that it was not its intent to “restrict harmless pranks, or to deter broadcasts that might upset some listeners but do not pose a substantial threat to public health or safety”.  Unfortunately, these words of the FCC come as close as anyone can come to saying in today’s regulatory environment what is acceptable for a radio station April Fools Day prank.  If a station is wrong and receives an Enforcement Bureau inquiry letter as a result of a broadcast hoax, the joke will be upon it.


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