Public TV stations can exclude candidates in debates, court says Supreme Court rules candidates with little support can be denied

May 19, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Public television stations run by state and local governments are free to stage political debates that exclude those candidates the broadcasters think have no real chance of winning, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

Candidates cannot be left out because of the views they hold or platforms they propose, but those "with little popular support" need not be invited, the court declared. The ruling appeared to be a boon to the political programming choices of government broadcasters and a gain for the dominant Democrats and Republicans.

The nation has 365 public TV stations; about two-thirds of them, including Maryland Public Television, are run by state or local governments or their agencies.

The ruling, based on the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee, applies only to government-run stations. The First Amendment is a limitation only on governments, not private organizations or individuals.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the main opinion, said the court did not want to require government TV stations to include all candidates, thus causing broadcasters to either produce a "cacophony" on the airwaves or to hold no debates out of fear of being sued by those excluded.

All nine justices embraced the view that government stations have no constitutional duty to give every candidate a place at the podium. The court split 6-3, however, on whether an Arkansas state TV network had valid reasons for excluding an independent candidate for a congressional seat.

The decision sought to sort out the competing First Amendment rights of government broadcasters and political candidates who want to be included in broadcasts that may shape voters' decisions on Election Day. The court rejected the claim of government stations that the First Amendment gives them complete discretion about whom to include. But it also turned aside the argument that all candidates have a First Amendment right to appear whenever any candidates are invited.

Burt Neuborne, a New York University law professor who is legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice, a campaign finance reform group, said the court "rejected both extremes" and came up with "a common-sense decision on the allocation of public resources regarding elections."

But Jamin Raskin, an American University law professor who is on the legal team supporting Ross Perot's efforts to be included in debates, denounced the ruling as an "egregious" decision and "a triumph for establishment political correctness. We are now dangerously close to the constitutionalization of the two-party system."

However, Raskin said the ruling might not affect Perot's challenge to his exclusion from the 1996 presidential debates. That case is based not on Perot's First Amendment rights, but on government regulations that say candidates cannot be excluded because of their positions or parties.

In upholding the discretion of government broadcasters to select participants in candidate forums, the court majority did not spell out a specific catalog of reasons that would justify who is included or excluded.

The ruling upheld the exclusion of Ralph P. Forbes from televised debate before an election for a congressional seat in Arkansas in 1992.

Justice Kennedy's majority opinion was supported by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Dissenters were Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter.

In other action, the justices voted not to disturb the government's ban against airline pilots flying commercial jets after age 60. The court left intact a $560,000 jury verdict against cigarette maker Lorillard Inc. for the death of a California man who smoked cigarettes with filters containing asbestos.

Pub Date: 5/19/98

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