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The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against political ads on public radio and TV stations -- like local station KCET. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times / April 16, 2012)

SAN FRANCISCO--A divided federal appeals court upheld a federal ban Monday on paid commercial, political and issue advertising on public broadcast radio and television stations.

Rejecting a free-speech challenge to the ban, an 11-member en banc panel of the U.S. 9thCircuit Court of Appeals ruled that Congress was entitled to establish regulations to ensure that public broadcasting would be educational and noncommercial.

Monday’s ruling overturned a smaller panel’s decision last year that would have permitted paid political and issue advertising. That ruling opened the door to hundreds of millions of dollars in ads for struggling public stations -- and could have caused economic headaches for radio and TV stations who depend on political ad spending.

“Congress recognized that advertising would change the character of public broadcast programming and undermine the intended distinction between commercial and noncommercial broadcasting,” Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote for the majority Monday.

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The case stemmed from a dispute between a San Francisco public television station, Minority Television Project, and the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC determined that the station’s announcements on behalf of for-profit companies, including Chevron and Ford, contained improper promotional language.

Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski argued in a dissent that even barring advertising from for-profit companies violated the 1st Amendment.

“Advertising revenue would allow public broadcast stations to acquire content that will serve their audiences,” Kozinski wrote, joined by Judge John T. Noonan. “Additional revenue would also enable stations to produce local content, which is one of the identified goals of public broadcasting, rather than relying on content produced nationally or abroad.”

Judge Consuelo M. Callahan agreed that the ban against commercial advertising was constitutional but would have struck down the prohibition on political and public interest ads.

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