Today at Supreme Court: Influence heavyweights battle over access to TV airwaves

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A view of the west facade of the U.S. Supreme Court building, full of grand columns set to a blue sky background.
The U.S. Supreme Court. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard two unrelated but potentially far-reaching cases that turn on the question of just how much authority the government has to regulate the airwaves.

At issue in the first case: political advertising, and a local regulation meant to keep outside groups from spreading falsehoods about a candidate. The other raises questions about the ever-more complicated issue of copyright and the rebroadcast of “free” TV. Both cases involve entities that appear frequently in Sunlight’s influence trackers.

Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus

The Susan B. Anthony List is challenging an Ohio law that allows local authorities to block political ads that they see as making false statements. At issue are ads the anti-abortion group wanted to run during a 2010 campaign against Democratic Rep. Steve Driehaus, who lost his bid for re-election that year.

While Ohio’s “false statement” law shut down the Susan B. Anthony List’s aggressive billboard attack ads aimed at Driehaus in the 2010 cycle, the setback has not stopped the group from running similar ads in other states. On April 11 of this year, the pro-life political committee announced a multi-state billboard campaign featuring material nearly identical to the controversial ads aimed at Driehaus. This time, they will run in hot button Senate elections, targeting Democratic candidates Mark Pryor, Ark., Mary Landrieu, La., and Kay Hagan, N.C (see below).

A billboard from the Susan B Anthony List stating "Shame on Kay Hagan! Hagan voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion"
Image credit: Susan B. Anthony List

In the same press release the group’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser pushed back on the idea that her group was pushing false claims about politicians that supported Obamacare, “[r]esearch both from the Charlotte Lozier Institute and the Kaiser Foundation found that millions of women will gain elective abortion coverage under Obamacare through the Medicaid expansion and new federal premium subsidies.”

Filings collected by Sunlight’s Real-Time FEC tracker show the group has spent just over $70,000 on independent expenditures in the 2014 cycle, focusing most of its financial muscle on the special Republican primary taking place Tuesday in Florida’s 19th Congressional District. The committee spent $50,000 on campaign mailings and robocalls supporting Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Republican state senator in a three-way race for her party’s nomination.

The 2014 cycle also saw the national group get active on the local stage. Of particular emphasis was a 2013 municipal referendum in Albuquerque, which would have banned abortions performed at 20 weeks or later. SBA List spent $50,000 on an ad campaign (see them all on Political Ad Hawk) featuring an OBGYN and parents that supported the Unborn Child Protection Ordinance. Though the referendum ultimately failed, the organization has made the prevention of post 20-week abortions its “top legislative priority” and supports federal legislation similar to the Albuquerque referendum in the House and Senate. The group’s first quarter lobbying disclosure reveals that Susan B. Anthony’s in-house lobbyists have been rallying support for the measure on Capitol Hill. SBA spent $110,000 on lobbying during that period, also targeting abortion coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

ABC v. Aereo

In Tuesday’s second case, American Broadcast Companies v. Aereo Inc., a flotilla of entertainment industry powerhouses are trying to convince the justices to keep an upstart company from snatching their works from the public airwaves and retransmitting them to paying customers on the Internet.

Aereo, the Internet rebroadcasting company, is backed by media mogul Barry Diller, whose campaign contributions include $7,000 to Barack Obama as well as other big-name Democrats. But Diller launched a broadside in the Wall Street Journal against the Obama administration recently for siding against Aereo in the Supreme Court case.

Diller accused Obama’s Justice Department of having been “corralled” by the broadcasters. There’s no question that the interests arrayed against Aereo have far more skin in the Washington influence game that even a major donor like Diller, according to campaign contributions analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics and compiled by Sunlight’s Influence Explorer. Among the groups filing amicus briefs against Aereo: The National Association of Broadcasters, which has made more than $11 million in campaign contributions, according to Influence Explorer; Major League Baseball and the National Football League, which combined have funneled nearly $5 million into campaigns (and that doesn’t count contributions from employees of individual baseball and football teams); Time Warner, $29 million; and Viacom, $10 million.

As you can see from the Influence Explorer profiles we’ve linked above, all of these organizations of wide experience in lobbying as well.