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Federal appeals court upholds FCC ruling on multilingual alerts

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit [official website] upheld [opinion, PDF] a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) [official website] ruling on Tuesday stating that "it was not unreasonable for the FCC to gather more information from relevant parties before deciding whether to compel broadcasters to translate emergency alerts and broadcast them in languages in addition to English."

The plaintiffs in the case included the League of United Latin American Citizens and Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council [advocacy websites] who claimed that the FCC violated § 1 of the Federal Communications Act (§ 1) [text, PDF], which states the purpose of the agency in relevant part as follows:

regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, a rapid, efficient, Nationwide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges ... for the purpose of promoting safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communication ...

The plaintiffs also raised an alternative argument that "the FCC has exercised its discretion in an arbitrary and capricious (that is, unreasonable) manner by seeking more information from broadcasters rather than using its authority to mandate multilingual alerts now." The plaintiffs essentially contended that Congress never expressly prohibited the FCC from compelling broadcasters to translate emergency alerts into languages other than English, and that the FCC therefore had broad discretion to so compel these broadcasters.

The court rejected both of these arguments. As to the statutory challenge, the court said that § 1 is a policy provision that "by themselves, do not create statutorily mandated responsibilities." The court added: "If Congress intended to require multi-lingual communications in general, and multi-lingual emergency alerts in particular, we would expect Congress to have spoken far more clearly than it has done in this general statement of policy."

As to the second "arbitrary and capricious" argument, the court stated:

The precise legal question here, therefore, is whether the FCC has exercised its discretion in a manner that was reasonable and reasonably explained. ... [I]t is surely reasonable (even if frustrating to petitioners) for the FCC to move cautiously and gather more comprehensive information before deciding whether to force private broadcasters to play a major new role in the emergency alert system. ... [T]he FCC reasonably explained that shifting some of the responsibility for message content from alert originators to broadcasters by requiring broadcasters to translate and re-broadcast emergency alerts in other languages would generate practical problems and could undermine the workability of the emergency alert system at this time.

The court closed by stating that the judiciary does not have the authority of its own to force broadcasters to translate emergency alerts and broadcast them in multiple languages, and that its role is limited to determining whether the FCC's decision was consistent with the FCC Act, and whether it was reasonable and reasonably explained. The court concluded that the FCC decision met that threshold here.

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