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Judge invalidates rules for public access station

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  1. Content Restrictions
From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 21.

From the Spring 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 21.

A federal district judge in Springfield, Mass., ruled on Feb. 28 that a public access television station in Athol, Mass., wrongly restricted free speech rights and interfered with the newsgathering ability of two producers who used the station, one of whom was barred from further production.

Judge Michael A. Ponsor found that the station must allow the journalists to continue production and they are now producing a similar show. He found that rules adopted by Athol Orange Television Inc. violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because they were content-based.

Patricia Demarest and Vicki Dunn, producers of what was then known as “Think Tank 2000,” sued the station after AOTV’s board of directors suspended Demarest for airing an interview she conducted with a local official in July 2000. The official claimed that he was unaware Demarest was recording their conversation, which would have violated an AOTV rule requiring written permission from all parties before they can be recorded.

Ponsor held that because AOTV was created by the city of Athol to “serve the community,” the station is “bound by the mandates of the First Amendment” and could not implement such rules. The rules also barred recording of an illegal act and required the producers to compensate the station for legal fees.

In addition, Ponsor found that AOTV’s rules violated the Cable Act, which has a “general intent that operators refrain from editorial control” of public access programs.

Demarest said she began “Think Tank 2000” as a way to inform and involve Athol’s citizens in the local political scene. While the show’s focus remains the same, the title has not. Three shows, now called “Reading Between the Lines,” had been produced by late April following the court’s decision.

The case, however, is not over.

Demarest’s attorney, Bill Newman of the American Civil Liberties Union in western Massachusetts, said a mediation session to decide which issues need resolution is scheduled with a federal judge in May. Until then, the preliminary injunction stands, allowing Demarest and Dunn to continue producing the show. — KC