Every year at about this time, we worry that radio stations may be tempted to run some big April Fools’ Day stunt. But, with the country seemingly on edge because of natural and human emergencies in the news almost every day, a prank that may seem funny to some could trigger concerns with others. As we do every year about this time, we need to play our role as attorneys and ruin any fun that you may be planning by repeating our reminder that broadcasters need to be careful with any on-air pranks, jokes or other on-air bits prepared especially for April 1. Particularly as the day falls on a Saturday this year, and less experienced personnel who may not be as familiar with legal concerns may be manning stations, a warning seems again to be appropriate. While a little fun is OK, remember that the FCC has a rule against on-air hoaxes, and there can be liability issues with false alerts that are run on a station. Issues like these can arise at any time, but a broadcaster’s temptation to go over the line is probably highest on April 1.
The FCC’s rule against broadcast hoaxes, Section 73.1217, prevents stations from running any information about a “crime or catastrophe” on the air, if the broadcaster (1) knows the information to be false, (2) it is reasonably foreseeable that the broadcast of the material will cause substantial public harm and (3) public harm is in fact caused. Public harm is defined as “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.” If you air a program that fits within this definition and causes a public harm, you should expect to be fined by the FCC.
This rule was adopted in the early 1990s after several incidents that were well-publicized in the broadcast industry, including one case where the on-air personalities at a station falsely claimed that they had been taken hostage, and another case where a station broadcast bulletins reporting that a local trash dump had exploded like a volcano and was spewing burning trash. In both cases, first responders were notified about the non-existent emergencies and emergency teams responded to the fake events after listeners called. Thus, these crucial emergency personnel were temporarily not available to respond to real emergencies. After the publicity from these incidents, the FCC adopted its prohibition against broadcast hoaxes.
The FCC hoax rule is not the only reason to be wary about on-air pranks on April 1. Beyond the potential for FCC fines, any station activity that could present the risk of bodily harm to a participant also raises the potential for civil liability. In cases where people are injured because first responders had been responding to the hoaxes instead of to real emergencies, stations could have faced potential liability. If some April Fools’ stunt by a station goes wrong, and someone is injured either because police, fire or paramedics are tied up responding to a false alarm, or if someone is hurt rushing to or from the scene of the non-existent calamity that was reported on a station, the victim will be looking for a deep pocket to sue – and broadcasters may become the target. Even a case that doesn’t result in liability can be expensive to defend and subject the station to unwanted negative publicity. So, have fun, but be careful how you do it.