Public broadcasters seek right to exclude minor-party candidates from TV debates Supreme Court appears reluctant

case involves Ark. congressional race

October 09, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court justices reacted negatively yesterday to a plea by publicly owned broadcast stations for a constitutional right to exclude minor-party candidates from campaign debates on radio or television.

By the end of an hourlong hearing, it appeared that a state-owned Arkansas TV network may be hard-pressed to win full First Amendment protection from the court when the network chooses debate participants.

The court's ruling may have a wide impact, since two-thirds of the nation's public TV stations are licensed to state government agencies. The debate exclusion issue has not arisen in Maryland, since Maryland Public Television has made its candidate forums open to little-known candidates, according to Vice President Everett Marshburn.

The Arkansas network, a group of five stations, contends that public broadcasters should have as much editorial discretion as private ones do in choosing programming -- including lining up candidates for a debate. But yesterday's hearing seemed to indicate that the network, as an arm of the state government, may have to respect the free-speech rights of minor-party debaters, too.

The Arkansas case grows out of a televised congressional debate, but could have an impact on future presidential debates, too, since one key issue is whether debates limited solely to the Democratic and Republican candidates are a form of discrimination against the views of other party candidates.

Ross Perot, the Reform Party presidential candidate who was excluded from last year's TV debates between President Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole, is arguing that kind of discrimination in his claim that his exclusion was illegal. His challenge awaits a ruling by the Federal Election Commission.

Two Supreme Court justices, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens, whose votes the Arkansas stations would seem to need to win full editorial discretion in selecting debaters, suggested that keeping out minor-party candidates could amount to bias against someone because of his or her views.

The First Amendment bars the government -- and, perhaps, government-run television stations -- from discriminating against speakers based on their views. The Arkansas stations were found by lower courts to have violated the First Amendment rights of an independent congressional candidate, Ralph P. Forbes, a self-styled Christian supremacist, in 1992.

Forbes was excluded because the stations considered his candidacy a lost cause -- the same reason given for excluding Perot from the presidential debates. A federal appeals court ruled that government stations may not use that reason to justify a veto of some debate participants.

The Arkansas stations' appeal to the Supreme Court argues that a debate forum on TV is not an open forum run by the government; if it were an open forum, all points of view would have to be given a chance to be expressed.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor and, to a lesser extent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined in aggressive questioning of the Arkansas stations' attorney on why the stations' editors should be able to choose who takes part in a public event such as a candidates forum.

The stations did get some support from the bench, with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist expressing dismay at the prospect that a widely unpopular candidate, whom he called "Willie Wacko," might have to be included in televised debates.

A final ruling on the case is expected later in the court term, perhaps next spring.

Pub Date: 10/09/97

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