The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit heard oral argument on January 14, 2011 in a case of first impression that will decide whether a high school athletic association may require media organizations to buy licenses for internet streaming of high school athletic events.
The appellate court is reviewing a lower court decision last June upholding the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association’s (the “Wisconsin Athletic Association”) policies regulating internet streaming of high school tournament events. Two Gannett newspapers in Wisconsin challenged the licensing policy on First Amendment grounds.
The Wisconsin licensing scheme at issue requires any media organization to pay a fee ranging from $250 to $1500 for the right to stream video of any tournament event over the internet. The Wisconsin Athletic Association also reserves to itself “sole discretion” to grant such rights without specifying any standards for the exercise of its discretion.
Under the Wisconsin licensing policy, any media organization that pays the licensing fee and receives internet streaming rights must provide a master copy its video to a private company holding exclusive broadcast rights. That private company then may market the video and the media organization that made the video is entitled to a 20% share of the proceeds as a royalty.
The lower court observed in its June ruling that “ultimately, this case is about commerce, not the right to a Free Press.” Gannett’s appeal however argues that the Wisconsin Athletic Association’s revenue-generating motive does not trump the media’s First Amendment rights.
Gannett also focuses its constitutional arguments on the unrestricted discretion the Wisconsin Athletic Association reserves for itself to grant licenses to media organizations of its choosing. Gannett contends that if the athletic association wishes to pick and choose which media organizations may stream video over the internet, the First Amendment requires it do so on an even-handed basis without any threat of exclusion based on viewpoint.
An array of national media associations and media companies has joined in supporting Gannett’s appeal through the filing of an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief. Those supporting organizations include the Newspaper Association of America, the American Society of News Editors, the National Press Photographers Association and The Online News Association. The supporting media companies include Sun Times Media, LLC and Lee Enterprises, Incorporated, among others.
The Wisconsin Athletic Association is supported by two amicus briefs, one by the National Federation of State High School Associations and the other by 10 state high school associations, including the IHSAA.
A decision by the Seventh Circuit is expected this summer or fall. Any of the parties could then seek review by the United States Supreme Court. The decisions of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals are binding precedent for lower federal courts in the states of Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.
*Steve Badger is a partner at Bose McKinney & Evans and represents media organizations and journalists in media law and First Amendment matters.