Court agrees to clarify public TV stations' rights Program control issue in Ark. campaign case

March 18, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, finally taking up an issue it has passed over repeatedly for 14 years, agreed yesterday to clarify the constitutional right of most public television stations to choose what they put on the air.

In a case that could affect the programming of the 250 public TV PTC stations that are owned and operated by state governments, the court said it would use an Arkansas case to settle how far the First Amendment goes to protect government broadcasters.

State TV stations or networks make up about two-thirds of the nation's 365 public TV outlets. Maryland Public Television, a part of the state government, is such a network.

Because such stations or networks are a part of government, it is unclear whether they have the same rights of free speech that privately run broadcast outlets do.

As a part of the government, state-owned broadcast operations must obey the First Amendment guarantee of free speech for others. But those stations also act as speakers with some First Amendment rights of their own.

A federal appeals court ruled in the Arkansas case that a state-controlled broadcaster cannot put together a program that allows some political points of view to be expressed on the air, while excluding others.

The case involves a candidate debate, in which the Arkansas Educational Television Commission's staff chose to shut out an independent candidate who had qualified for the ballot.

The independent candidate was excluded because, the broadcast staff concluded, he had no realistic chance of winning the election. The appeals court said that that was a judgment for the voters to make, not for the government broadcaster to resolve before staging a debate.

That case goes back to 1992. It had reached the Supreme Court once before, but the justices turned it aside at a preliminary stage in 1994 -- just as they had done with other state-owned broadcasters' appeals going back to 1983. Now, however, lower courts are deeply divided on the issue.

A final ruling is expected sometime next year. A hearing will be held next fall or winter.

Other cases

The Supreme Court also granted review yesterday of another case with political overtones: a test of whether every state must elect its members of Congress on the same day in November.

A federal law sets the date for the general election for members of Congress and the president on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

A federal appeals court ruled that the November date must be used for final selection of all members of Congress. Thus, it struck down Louisiana's open primary law, which often settles the winner of the state's seats in the House and Senate as early as the first Saturday in October.

Under the state law, all candidates regardless of party run in the primary. If any one candidate gets a majority of the vote, that candidate is declared elected, and there is no general election for that seat in November. In the vast majority of the congressional contests, the outcome is settled in the October primary.

Louisiana officials asked the Supreme Court to clear the way for the state law to continue operating. It has been in effect since 1978.

In another order yesterday, the justices refused to hear an appeal claiming that the First Amendment protects the operators of coin-operated news racks when they put sexually explicit publications in their sidewalk boxes. That has been outlawed by a 1994 California statute.

In other actions:

The court voted to leave intact a lower court ruling that the city of San Francisco has acted unconstitutionally since 1934 by keeping a 103-foot Christian cross in a city park. The justices' action will force San Francisco officials to transfer the cross to other owners, the city said.

The court refused to hear an appeal by a New York county prosecutor, who faces a civil rights damages lawsuit by a woman claiming that he violated her religious rights. He agreed to dismiss criminal sexual abuse charges only after she gave in to his demand to swear on a Bible, in a church, that she had never molested her young son. The prosecutor sought to stop the case by claiming that as a prosecutor, he was immune.

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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