'Must carry' rules to face review Supreme Court will assess cable TV law

February 21, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to open another -- and maybe the last -- chapter on the constitutionality of government orders to the cable television industry to carry, free, the programs of local broadcast TV stations.

In a brief order, the court said it will rule on the constitutionality of the so-called "must carry" rules that Congress wrote into federal law four years ago.

The court, however, will be handling that dispute on a regular rather than a speeded-up schedule, thus indicating that a final decision may be more than a year away. A hearing will not be held until October, in the court's next term.

For more than a third of the century, the federal government and the cable TV industry have been waging a continuing war in the courts over the "must-carry" issue. The new case the court will now be reviewing poses that constitutionality question in what appears to be a clear-cut, final way, thus holding promise of a definite outcome next year.

Nearly two years ago, in a 5-4 ruling, the court for the first time laid down the constitutional rule that cable TV has more First Amendment protection than does regular broadcasting, but less than the print press.

At that time, the court did not reach its own decision on the specific issue of the "must-carry" law's constitutionality. It sent that question back to a special three-judge U.S. District Court, which upheld the law by a 2-1 vote last December, setting the stage for the dispute to return to the highest court.

The aim behind the government's "must-carry" demand has been the same from the beginning: to protect the free TV that is available from broadcast stations. Since an increasing number of TV viewers in the nation -- 60 percent of the total -- get their programs via cable, the government has worried that cable will shut out the signals of broadcast TV, thus undermining its audience and advertising.

The cable TV industry counters that the broadcast TV industry is not in poor health economically, and that, anyway, cable will choose to air broadcast-originated programs for cable customers. Cable operators contend that the "must-carry" rules interfere deeply with their constitutional right to decide what programs to offer.

Although the court agreed to rule on the "must-carry" issue, it declined yesterday to consider a separate issue involving the cable industry: the constitutionality of a separate part of the 1992 cable law that ordered government regulation of cable TV rates. Using that authority, the Federal Communications Commission ordered a 17 percent rate cut and curbed future rate rises.

The court apparently bypassed that controversy because the new Telecommunications Act of 1996 changes the basic approach to cable TV rates, freeing many cable systems from rate regulation by maintaining it for others.

The justices also took two other actions yesterday on business-related cases:

* They refused to clear up a dispute among lower federal courts on whether the federal equal housing law bans race and sex discrimination in property and hazard insurance on homes. Without comment, the court voted to leave intact one appeals court ruling saying that the Fair Housing Act does extend to insurance terms and conditions.

* They also declined to clarify the power of local governments to require that all local garbage be processed at the local government's own disposal plant.

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