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Candidate’s exclusion from radio debate does not violate rights

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  1. Content Restrictions

    NMU         FOURTH CIRCUIT         Broadcasting         Oct 4, 1999    

Candidate’s exclusion from radio debate does not violate rights

  • Radio and television stations that excluded a reform party candidate from a political debate were not state actors, and thus did not deny the candidate her right to inclusion in a public debate

In early September, a split panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) dismissed a case brought by a reform party candidate who had claimed her exclusion from a political debate broadcast on a public radio station and a local television station violated her constitutional rights.

The court found that the radio and television stations were not state actors, and consequently, that a government entity had not denied the candidate her claimed constitutional right to inclusion in a forum the government had established for purposes of political debate.

During the 1997 Virginia gubernatorial race, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who hosted a show on radio station WRVA, arranged a debate at Virginia Commonwealth University between the Democratic and Republican candidates to be broadcast on WRVA and television station WNVT. Reform candidate Sue Harris DeBauche alleged that she placed several calls to Wilder asking to be included in the debate but received no response.

According to the court, links to public university and broadcast stations did not convert a private radio host’s conduct into state action. Moreover, the court noted that public broadcasters’ programming is generally not treated as a public forum, but that even in cases where such programming is treated as a public forum, programmers may still exercise reasonable, viewpoint neutral, journalistic discretion. Finally, the court suggested that even if it found Wilder’s actions violated DeBauche’s constitutional rights, the court would have found Wilder enjoyed qualified immunity from liability because he could not have known at the time he hosted the debate of any such violation of federal law.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Robert King contended that “a political debate is perhaps the quintessential public forum.” King argued that DeBauche pleaded a sufficient claim to proceed to trial and address whether the president of Virginia Commonwealth University unconstitutionally discriminated against DeBauche in excluding her from the debate based upon her viewpoint, and also whether Wilder, as a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, acted on behalf of the university in excluding DeBauche from the debate.

(DeBauche v. Trani; Media Counsel: Andrew Gray Mauck, Richmond)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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