With April Fools’ Day only a few days away, we need to play our role as attorneys and ruin the fun by repeating our annual reminder that broadcasters need to be careful with any on-air pranks, jokes or other bits prepared especially for the day. While a little fun is OK, remember that the FCC does have a rule against on-air hoaxes – and, while issues can arise at any time, 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.” Air a program deemed a hoax, and 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, actually responded to the notices that listeners called in, and were prevented from responding to real emergencies. In light of this sort of incident, the FCC adopted its prohibition against broadcast hoaxes. But, as we’ve reminded broadcasters before, the FCC hoax rule is not the only reason to be wary on April 1.
Beyond potential FCC liability, 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. We all remember the Sacramento contest-gone-wrong that resulted in multi-million-dollar liability against a radio station for the death of a contestant during the station contest. 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 the scene of the non-existent calamity, 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.