Adult cable curbs OK'd High court gives FCC authority to restrict timing of programs

Aim is to protect children

Lower-court decision to toss constitutional challenge is upheld

March 25, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court gave the government authority yesterday to force cable TV networks to stop offering sexually explicit programs during most of the day if they cannot completely block the programming from homes that do not sign up for it.

In an order with no comment, the justices unanimously upheld a lower-court decision that rejected a constitutional challenge by the Playboy and Spice networks against part of the 1996 cable indecency law. That law seeks to guarantee that children do not view indecent programs on cable TV.

The justices did not rule that the law is constitutional. But they agreed that the law is likely to be upheld in court when a full trial is held on its validity. The action allows the Federal Communications Commission to begin enforcing the law, which has been blocked while the first case involving it made its way to the Supreme Court.

The law was aimed primarily at Playboy Entertainment Group, which operates the Playboy Television and AdulTVision networks, and Spice Entertainment Companies, which operates the Adam & Eve and Spice networks.

Nearly all their offerings are considered indecent under the 1996 law. They provide their programs directly only to the households that subscribe to them, but many TV sets in nonsubscribers' homes are capable of picking up some of the visuals or audio of those shows. That phenomenon is called "signal bleed."

The law gives cable operators two options to avoid sending programs to nonsubscribers:

They can adopt new and fairly expensive scrambling and blocking techniques to ensure that there is no unintended viewing or listening.

They can cancel those shows between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children are most likely to be watching. That leaves only an eight-hour showing time, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Cable operators have indicated that they would take the second option, because the first is far too expensive with current technology. The second option would also be costly, however.

Playboy and Spice challenged the law in a federal court in Wilmington, Del., and lost in a preliminary ruling in November. They complained that the law violates their right to free speech and that it would discriminate against them, given that some other cable networks -- such as HBO -- can show some adult programming throughout the day.

The two networks asked the Supreme Court to strike down the law without waiting for a formal trial on their constitutional challenge. The justices, without holding a hearing on the appeal, acted swiftly to uphold the lower-court decision that allows the law to take effect.

No-knock entries

In a separate case, the justices indicated by questions and comments that they are likely to react positively to pleas by the Clinton administration and the state of Wisconsin to let police rush into private homes to search for evidence of drug crimes without knocking or announcing themselves.

In 1995, the court ruled that the Constitution requires police in most cases to knock and identify themselves before entering a home to carry out a search warrant. Most no-knock entries, the court said, would violate the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches.

But last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that there is an exception to the knock-and-announce rule when the crime involves drugs. That ruling would leave it up to police to decide whether to make their presence known before entering a home for which they have a warrant to search for drugs.

That case was appealed to the Supreme Court by a man, Steiney J. Richards, who was convicted of a crack cocaine offense after police entered his motel room unannounced. Richards' lawyer, David R. Karpe of Madison, encountered hostile questioning or remarks from across the bench yesterday.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted that the court had recently ruled -- in a Maryland case -- that police have unlimited authority to order passengers out of a stopped car in order to protect the officers' safety. It would be "just as sensible," Kennedy said, to create a flat rule like that giving police complete discretion about entering a home to search for drugs.

Kennedy apparently was reacting to Wisconsin's argument that drug crimes often involve guns and violence, raising the risk to police when they announce their presence at the door.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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