Stations Can Omit Political Candidates in Free-Speech Test, the High Court Allows Public TV Stations to Pick and Choose Debaters

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In a decision that may shape the future of political debating on television, the US Supreme Court says public TV stations can pick and choose the political candidates they allow on the air.

Yesterday's ruling, the biggest free-speech case of the current term, has divided newsrooms and civil libertarians around the country. The case pitted the journalistic judgment of government- financed TV editorial boards against the First Amendment claim of free political expression - and the government and journalists won.

"In some ways, this is a clear victory for the First Amendment and the right of news organizations to determine content," says Ken Paulson of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. "News organizations are in a position to assess the viability of candidates, and that's an essential part of the editing function," Mr. Paulson says. Not a viable candidate The issue stems from a dispute between Ralph Forbes, a former American Nazi Party member and a GOP candidate for Congress in Arkansas, and the local PBS station, whose officials decided in the 1992 election that Mr. Forbes was not a viable candidate. The 6-to-3 ruling authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy allows the government more leeway in deciding what kinds of expression it will allow on its property - and continues a conservative Rehnquist- court trend dating from the mid-1980s. In two decisions earlier this decade, the high court said federal officials could choose what type of messages could be displayed on sidewalks outside post offices. The justices also have ruled that publicly-operated airports were not subject to open-ended free- speech challenges. Lost access "The broader question after this ruling is, when does the government have to make its resources and facilities available to others, when it opens them to some?" says Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, who derides the decision. "For many candidates without money, public TV is the only place they have to go. …

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