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Public television network cannot exclude candidates from debate

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Public television network cannot exclude candidates from debate09/09/96 ARKANSAS--The political viability of a candidate is not a judgment to be…

Public television network cannot exclude candidates from debate

09/09/96

ARKANSAS–The political viability of a candidate is not a judgment to be made by journalists who are government employees, and therefore a public television station cannot exclude political candidates from a televised debate, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Ft. Smith ruled in late August. The decision overturned the findings of an Arkansas federal District Court jury.

In October 1992, the Arkansas Educational Television Network had refused to allow Ralph Forbes, an independent candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives for the Third Congressional District of Arkansas, to participate in a televised debate. Forbes, who had collected enough signatures to legally qualify for the race, claimed his First Amendment rights were violated when the network deliberately excluded him from the debate, which featured only the Democratic and Republican candidates. Forbes also claimed he was discriminated against because his views were not necessarily traditional or popular.

In June 1995, after being instructed by the federal judge that the debate should be considered a non-public forum, a federal jury concluded that AETN’s decision was not the result of political pressure, nor was it based on opposition to Forbes’ political opinions.

On appeal, the court ruled that the purpose of the debate was to allow candidates to express their political views on campaign issues. To exclude any legally qualified candidate would be an unconstitutional prior restraint, the court said. Because Forbes had the required number of signatures to be a legitimate candidate, he enjoyed the same status as the Democratic and Republican candidates as a matter of law.

The panel reversed the jury judgment and instructed the lower court to empanel a jury to determine damages sustained by Forbes. Forbes has asked for $6 billion — $10,000 for each voter in his district and $25,000 for each voter who signed his ballot petition. (Forbes v. Arkansas Educational Television Communication Network Foundation; Media Counsel: Thomas Gay, Little Rock)