A "little fun" is OK for April Fools' Day, David Oxenford, partner in D.C. law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer, advised TV and radio stations in a blog post Tuesday, but crossing the line could mean FCC liability.
Broadcasters are not immune from the temptations of that "little fun" on April 1, but the FCC has a rule against broadcast hoaxes preventing any reporting about a "crime or catastrophe" that is known to be false, could reasonably foresee that it could cause public harm, and that harm is ultimately caused, which harm could include damage to property, health or safety either directly or indirectly.
Then there is the possibility of civil liability if things go very wrong.
Oxenford noted the 2009 contest in which a jury handed down $16.57 million in the death of a contestant in a radio contest in which participants had to keep drinking water and not go to the bathroom, the last holdout winning a Wii. One contestant died of what was described as water intoxication.
The same could happen for a prank gone bad, citing past examples of on-air personalities saying they had been taken hostage and reporting a trash dump exploding, volcano-like, and spewing trash. In both cases emergency crews were dispatched and, importantly, diverted from real emergencies.
"If some April Fools’ stunt by a station goes wrong and someone is injured either because police, fire or paramedics are tied up responding to a false alarm, or if someone is hurt rushing to the scene of the non-existent calamity, the victim will be looking for a deep pocket to sue," says Oxenford, "and broadcasters may become the target."