May 18, 1998

Monday, May 18, 1998

WASHINGTON -- In a blow to free speech rights, the United States Supreme Court today upheld the exclusion of a minor-party candidate for Congress from a televised debate.

By a vote of 6-3, the Justices reversed lower court rulings and said that Arkansas Educational Television Commission, a state-owned public television broadcaster, had the right to exclude Ralph Forbes, an independent candidate, from a 1992 debate between congressional candidates.

"The Court today allowed government broadcasters to tune out the voices of minor-party candidates," said Steven R. Shapiro, the Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. "The decision further diminishes the range of political discourse in this country."

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy adopted the reasoning of the station, which said it excluded Forbes from the debate based on his political viability, not the viewpoint that he sought to offer.

"The broadcaster's decision to exclude Forbes was a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral exercise of journalistic discretion consistent with the First Amendment," Kennedy wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O'Connor, Scalia, Thomas and Breyer. Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg dissented.

Shapiro said that a candidate's debate sponsored by a government broadcaster is different from almost all other television programming because the stakes are so high for the candidates and the public. "Excluding ballot-qualified candidates from a government-sponsored debate diminishes their visibility, deprives the public of an opportunity to hear all views and skews the debate toward mainstream ideas," Shapiro said.

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