The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a $20,000 FCC fine against a New Mexico FM broadcaster for operating outside the parameters of the broadcaster’s construction permit.
Section 301 of the Communications Act bans the unlicensed transmission of “energy or communications or signals by radio.” Section 503 of the Act authorizes monetary fines where the FCC finds “willful or repeated” failure to comply “with the terms and conditions of any license, permit, certificate, or other instrument or authorization” issued by the FCC.
In November 2009, the FCC issued a $20,000 fine to the broadcaster for operating at variance from the broadcaster’s construction permit. Specifically, the FCC found that the station was broadcasting without authorization, and was being operated at a facility 34 miles from its authorized location.
When the broadcaster failed to pay the $20,000 fine, the FCC referred the matter for collections to the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), which, in turn, sued the broadcaster in Nevada District Court to recover the $20,000. The District Court granted the DOJ’s motion for summary judgment, and in doing so upheld the fine against the broadcaster. The broadcaster, representing himself in court, subsequently appealed the District Court’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling, stating that the DOJ provided “substantial” evidence that, for more than a year, the broadcaster “willfully and repeatedly” transmitted radio signals from a different location and at different technical parameters than those specified in the broadcaster’s construction permit. In contrast, the court explained, “taking his submissions in the most generous light, [the broadcaster has] not shown a genuine issue of material fact for trial.” The broadcaster failed to contradict any of the facts underlying the alleged unauthorized operation: (1) because his construction permit required FCC approval before commencing program testing—which the FCC never granted—the transmissions were not valid under the FCC’s Rules; and (2) because the broadcaster transmitted at variance from the terms of the permit, he was not conducting valid equipment tests, which only allow transmission to assure compliance with the permit’s terms. In reviewing the amount of the fine, the Ninth Circuit found the FCC’s decision to impose the full $10,000 base fine for each of the two instances of unauthorized operation “reasonable and not an abuse of discretion."