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Court Ends FCC's Minority Hiring Regulations

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On the day after the Martin Luther King holiday, a federal court here freed broadcasters from the FCC's equal-employment rules, finding that they are "race-based" regulations and hence unconstitutional.

The court decided that the rules "put official pressure upon broadcasters to recruit minority candidates, thus creating a race-based classification that is not narrowly tailored to support a compelling governmental interest and is therefore unconstitutional."

Without the regulation, it will be "difficult to achieve a broadcast industry that reflects America's cultural diversity," said FCC chairman Bill Kennard, who steps down Friday.

"The court's interpretation of these rules perpetuates a disheartening reality that the federal government will not ensure fair recruitment policies in the broadcast industry," he said.

The decision likely ends any effort by the FCC to regulate broadcasters' minority hiring efforts as a GOP-dominated agency is unlikely to revive the attempt. Equal-employment regulations are a hot-button issue for Republicans, and the Supreme Court is likely to take some action on two conflicting federal cases moving through the system regarding minority hiring programs at the University of Texas and the University of Michigan, sources said.

Under the regulations, the FCC gave guidelines for broadcast stations' minority outreach programs and required broadcasters to place information about their efforts in public files.

The National Association of Broadcasters wanted the rule thrown out, claiming that a tax break for minority broadcast ventures would be a less burdensome way to achieve the same ends.

NAB chief Edward Fritts pointed out that an old tax-certificate program that was thrown out by Congress was "extremely effective in attracting more minorities into the ownership ranks of broadcasting."

The court decision came the same day a government report found that minority broadcast ownership was at its lowest level in at least a decade and has ticked up less than 1% during the past two years.

The report, produced by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Infor-mation Administration, found that 3.8% of full power commercial radio and television stations are licensed to minorities, 0.9% more than in 1998, when the last survey was conducted. The report also found that while minority broadcasters owned about 4% of commercial AM and FM radio stations, about 426 stations, minorities owned less than 2% of commercial television stations in the United States.

"Our nation has a long-standing commitment to minority ownership in the broadcast industry because of its role in ensuring diversity of voices," Secretary of Commerce Norman Mineta said. "With minorities owning less than 4% of all commercial broadcast stations in the U.S., we need to address the issue of how we can do more to promote minority participation."

Brooks Boliek writes for The Hollywood Reporter.

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