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Judge finds public access channel’s rules unconstitutional

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  1. Content Restrictions

    NMU         MASSACHUSETTS         Broadcasting         Mar 13, 2002    

Judge finds public access channel’s rules unconstitutional

  • A federal court ruled that several rules of a Massachusetts public access channel unnecessarily restricted free speech rights and interfered with the newsgathering ability of two people who used the public access channel.

A federal judge on Feb. 28 granted two producers of a public access television show aired in Athol, Mass., a preliminary injunction against the cable television station, which had barred them from production for breaking three of its rules.

The court said application of those rules violated the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The court’s decision “opens up more doors to the common citizen to be granted the same rights as a professional journalist,” said Patricia Demarest, a plaintiff in the case and co-producer of “Think Tank 2000.”

Demarest’s attorney, Bill Newman of the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed, saying the ruling “empowers citizens as publishers to gather information.”

Demarest said she began “Think Tank 2000” to inform and involve Athol’s citizens in local politics by giving them the “whole picture” on a wide range of issues.

Demarest and co-producer Vicki Dunn brought the case against 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, a violation of one of the station’s rules that requires 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 adopt such rules. These rules also included one that barred the recording of an illegal act and another that 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.

In a written statement, AOTV downplayed the court’s ruling, saying it “was not a final settlement of the case, but rather a granting of a temporary injunction allowing the plaintiffs to use the facilities of AOTV until a final settlement is reached.”

Demarest said she wants to get her show back on the air but has reservations about how the station may react.

“I definitely want to be able to walk in there undauntedly and take it where I want to take it without fear of losing my privileges,” Demarest said, adding that the decision was “well worth waiting for.”

(Demarest vs. Athol Orange Community Television; Media counsel: Bill Newman and Harris Freeman, North Hampton) KC

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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