Court bypasses challenge to city-run cable system

November 13, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court gave the cable television industry yesterday some new reasons to doubt that federal law will shield them from competition by rival systems set up and run by city or county governments.

For the second time in the past six months, the court chose to bypass an attempt by a private cable operator to use federal law or the Constitution to assure that government-run cable TV does not try to drive a private system out of business.

An appeal by an Arkansas subsidiary of Cablevision Systems Corp. had the backing of the cable TV industry. The justices, however, declined to review the case in a brief order containing no explanation.

The cable TV case the court chose to pass up involves a Cablevision subsidiary, Paragould Cablevision Inc. It has a franchise running until December 1993 to provide 50 channels of cable programming in Paragould, Ark.

After local cable viewers grew disenchanted with some of the private system's program offerings, the voters in 1986 approved a plan to let the city set up a rival cable operation. Last March, the municipal system became operational.

Paragould Cablevision sued to block the system, citing federal antitrust law and the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

The company contended the municipal-run system would compete unfairly and that the city was acting to curb the private system's sale of advertising.

But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last April that city governments enjoy antitrust immunity when they set up a cable TV system of their own under authority from a state.

Taking the case to the Supreme Court, the Arkansas firm said that an increasing number of cities across the country are getting into the cable business and will have the economic power to drive out their private competitors unless forbidden to do so either by antitrust law or the Constitution.

The case was Paragould Cablevision vs. Paragould (No. 91-469).

In another business-related case yesterday, the court agreed to decide whether realty developers have a right to sue for civil rights damages if state or local officials act arbitrarily in refusing to issue building permits.

Federal appeals courts are split on whether the 1871 Civil Rights Act can be used by developers frustrated in attempts to get final approval for their projects from land-use officials. The issue arises in a test case involving a 12-year effort by a developer in Puerto Rico to get permits for a combined home and tourism project. The case, to be decided before next summer, is PFZ Properties vs. Rodriguez (No. 91-122).

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