(Reuters) – Conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices signaled sympathy on Tuesday toward a bid by President Donald Trump’s administration, backed by broadcast companies, to loosen regulations that critics have said promote a diversity of views in local broadcast media and ownership by racial minorities and women.
During arguments by teleconference in the case, conservative justices asked questions that appeared to indicate they believe the Federal Communications Commission did not overstep its authority in repealing certain media ownership regulations in 2017. The court has a 6-3 conservative majority.
The justices were considering appeals by the FCC, companies including News Corp, Fox Corp and Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc and the National Association of Broadcasters of a lower court ruling that blocked the rule changes for failing to consider the effects on ownership diversity.
The broadcast industry wants a freer hand to consolidate operations, and the FCC’s move helped that goal. But critics of the FCC’s action have said loosening ownership rules as the agency did could jeopardize a wider array of news and information sources at the local level.
The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has thwarted the FCC’s efforts to revise the rules since 2003 in a series of decisions.
Chief Justice John Roberts and other conservative justices focused during the arguments on the FCC’s obligation to extensively analyze potential impacts on women and minorities.
Roberts wondered whether the FCC should have to justify changing its focus from one priority to another that it thinks is more important, such as cross-ownership between broadcast and print media as opposed to ownership by minorities and women.
“Reasonable people can disagree on that,” Roberts said.
Fellow conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch said that a 1996 law directing the FCC to periodically review ownership rules had a “deregulatory impulse and yet that impulse idea has never been exercised.”
Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that the FCC has “for decades” considered minority and women ownership when making its rules and that legal precedent requires an adequate explanation if that approach is rejected.
At issue in the case is a 2019 ruling by the 3rd Circuit, which ordered the FCC to reconsider the issue.
In 2017, the Republican-led FCC voted to eliminate a ban in place since 1975 on cross-ownership of a newspaper and TV station in a major market. It also voted to make it easier for media companies to buy additional TV stations in the same market, for local stations to jointly sell advertising time and for companies to buy additional radio stations in some markets.
The new rules were challenged by a number of community advocacy groups led by Prometheus Radio Project.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)