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Suit over public access show cancellation reinstated

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Suit over public access show cancellation reinstated 05/19/97 IOWA--The U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis (8th Cir.) held in…

Suit over public access show cancellation reinstated

05/19/97

IOWA–The U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis (8th Cir.) held in late April that a lower court prematurely dismissed a civil rights complaint filed by a public access talk show host in Fairfield, Iowa, whose show was suspended by the city cable governing committee after he conducted a sex survey on the air.

In reversing, a unanimous panel of the appellate court noted that speech constituting a state-law tort is not necessarily unprotected, and that the First Amendment generally prevents government from proscribing speech based on its content. In order to control access to a designated public forum, the government must be able to show it has a compelling interest in regulating the forum. The court noted that although the status of cable access as a public forum may be in doubt, the city has “sufficiently opened” the access channel to make it a public forum.

The court stated that the government can regulate truthful facts contained in otherwise proscribable speech only if the state can show its compelling interest, the regulation is viewpoint-neutral and the facts revealed are highly offensive, not already in the public domain and not a legitimate subject of public interest. The appellate court said that the district court dismissed the complaint without determining whether these factors were met.

In October 1994, the Fairfield Public Access Television Committee and the City Council suspended Randy Coplin’s show on the Fairfield Public Access Television channel after Coplin encouraged callers to discuss the sexual practices of their neighbors and to identify them by address. Coplin filed a lawsuit in federal District Court in Des Moines, claiming that the suspension violated his rights under the First Amendment and the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984.

The District Court dismissed Coplin’s complaint, concluding that regardless of whether the statements were true or false, they constituted a tort under state law and were therefore unprotected. The court held that if Coplin’s statements were true they constituted invasion of privacy, and if false, were defamatory. (Coplin v. Fairfield Public Access Television Committee; Media Counsel: Jonathan Frankel, Washington, D.C.)