The Supreme Court case of Red Lion Broadcasting versus the FCC was one of the most famous challenges to the Fairness Doctrine. In this case, the FCC charged that Red Lion Broadcasting had violated the Fairness Doctrine when it carried a program that included a personal attack on a journalist named Fred J. Cook. As a result, the FCC demanded that Red Lion send Cook a transcript of the program and provide airtime for him to reply whether or not he would pay for it. The company challenged this ruling on with respect to the Fairness Doctrine’s application to a specific broadcast. They also challenged the FCC’s “equal time rule” and a “response to personal attack rule” as infringing on the company’s editorial judgment, effectively charging that broadcast stations should be allowed to dictate their own programming without having the FCC set specific programming requirements.
When the FCC’s ruling was upheld in the Court of Appeals, the case was escalated to the Supreme Court, where it was upheld by a unanimous 7-0 vote. In his written opinion after the case was decided, Justice Byron White stated that “it is idle to posit an unabridgeable First Amendment right to broadcast comparable to the right of every individual to speak, write, or publish” and that the First Amendment applies to the rights of the listening and viewing public, not necessarily those of the broadcasters. The decision also took into account the alleged “cooling effect”, in which broadcasters may choose to avoid covering controversial topics altogether rather than seek out balanced coverage, saying that the danger of such an effect was speculative at best and that it is within the authority of the FCC to guard against such danger.