Farmers Educational & Cooperative Union of America v. WDAY, Inc.

PETITIONER: Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union of America, North Dakota Division
RESPONDENT: WDAY, Inc.
LOCATION: Fargo, North Dakota

DOCKET NO.: 248
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1958-1962)
LOWER COURT:

CITATION: 360 US 525 (1959)
ARGUED: Mar 23, 1959
DECIDED: Jun 29, 1959

ADVOCATES:
Edward S. Greenbaum - For the petitioner
Harold W. Bangert - For the Respondent
Harriet F. Pilpel - For the Petitioner

Facts of the case

The radio and television station WDAY, Inc. broadcast the speech of A.C. Townley, a legally qualified candidate in the 1956 United States Senate race in North Dakota. The speech was broadcast uncensored as a reply to previous speeches made by two other Senate candidates. Townley’s speech accused the other candidates and the Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union of America of conspiring to establish “a Communist Farmers Union Soviet.” Farmers Union sued Townley and WDAY, Inc for libel in district court. The court dismissed the complaint against WDAY, Inc. and held that the Federal Communications Act of 1934 granted the station immunity from liability for such defamation. The Supreme Court of North Dakota affirmed.

Question

Does the Federal Communications Act of 1934 prohibit a broadcasting station from removing defamatory statements in speeches broadcast by legally qualified candidates for office?

If so, does the station have federal immunity from liability for libelous statements in the broadcast?

 

Media for Farmers Educational & Cooperative Union of America v. WDAY, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 23, 1959 (Part 2) in Farmers Educational & Cooperative Union of America v. WDAY, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 23, 1959 (Part 1) in Farmers Educational & Cooperative Union of America v. WDAY, Inc.

Earl Warren:

Number 248, Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union of America, North Dakota Division, a Corporation, Petitioner, versus WDAY, Incorporated.

Mr. Greenbaum, you may proceed.

Edward S. Greenbaum:

If the Court please.

This is a certiorari which this Court has granted to review the action of the Supreme Court of the State of North Dakota.

In that action, the Court dismissed a libel suit.

The action was a defendant on the ground that there was no liability on the part of the station, the television station, WDAY.

Of course, under the provisions of Section 315 of the Communications Act, there was immunity granted by implication to the station.

This is the Section 315, which grants equal opportunity to an opposing candidate in campaigns.

The Section 315 as in so construed by the lower court so as to deprive plaintiffs including as I did in this case, the petitioner who as its name implies, the Farmers Educational Union, is of course not a candidate for public office.

Therefore, we haven't checked this under 315, the issue as to whether (a) Immunity is granted, and (b), if it's granted as against the plaintiffs who are non-candidates.

Very briefly, the facts in this case were there, it involved the 1956 Senatorial campaigns in the State of North Dakota.

The candidates were Senator Young who is the incumbent, and Mr. Burdick, who is his opponent.

Both of these gentlemen had time granted to them by this station, WDAY, in Fargo, South Dakota.

After they had spoken, and doing their speech, as they made no mention whatever, over the petitioner, nor of a man named, Townley, who under the law of the State of South Dakota, had become a candidate for the United States Senate.

Under that law, all that is required is 300 votes to qualify a person as a candidate.

There's no doubt and we do not dispute that Townley was a qualified candidate, entitled to the provisions of equal opportunity under Section 315.

Potter Stewart:

The state law requires a minimum of 300 votes --

Edward S. Greenbaum:

Yes, Your Honor.

Potter Stewart:

-- in a party primary, is that it?

Edward S. Greenbaum:

Yes (Voice Overlap) petition.

Potter Stewart:

Or 300 (Voice Overlap) --

Edward S. Greenbaum:

300 votes will enable a candidate to be nominated.

Potter Stewart:

In a party primary?

Edward S. Greenbaum:

Yes.

In this case, the two other candidates, that is Senator Young and Mr. Burdick had spoken.

Now, what did Mr. Townley say?

You will find on page 2 of the transcript had said.

Now, I just like to take the liberty, Your Honor, to call attention of few other things he said to his audience, North Dakota Republican farmers, bankers and businessmen.

The first paragraph, “The Farmers Union -- I will paraphrase it, “Dictators would establish a Communist Farmers Union Soviet right here in North Dakota.”

Then in the third paragraph, we will see in the fourth line they called our client, a, Communist viper.