Florida ACLU Challenges Illegal Termination of Cable Access Funding

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
September 30, 2002 12:00 am

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MIAMI–Saying that county officials in Tampa violated the First Amendment by engaging in content-based censorship of protected speech, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today filed a federal lawsuit against the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners for the unlawful termination of a cable access television contract.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Speak Up Tampa Bay Public Access Television, Inc., the non-profit organization that manages the day-to-day operations of the government-owned Public Television Access Center. The ACLU is calling on the court to immediately reinstate the group’s funding and programming contract, which was terminated on September 19 after several commissioners expressed concern over shows that “”pollute the community.””

“”Public access television is today what the speaker’s soap box and printed leaflet were yesterday,”” said ACLU of Florida cooperating attorney Paul Rebein, who filed the lawsuit in Tampa. “”Unfortunately, the Hillsborough County Commission has made it clear that they do not approve of the content of the speech of certain programs on public access. As a result, they have terminated all of the funding for public access. This is a clear violation of the First Amendment.”

At issue is the content of the program “Insanity Defense” and “Happy Show,” which were broadcast to cable subscribers in Tampa and Hillsborough County. After months of debate over the “”objectionable and offensive”” nature of the shows, the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners voted 5-1 on September 19 to terminate funding for the 2003 fiscal year, setting Tuesday, October 1 as the funding cut-off date.

The ACLU lawsuit charges that such actions amounts to content-based retaliation stemming from government efforts to “”stifle, censor and control the content and viewpoints expressed in some cable-casts produced and/or broadcast by Speak Up and its community television producers.””

“”We set a dangerous precedent when we begin to allow government officials to censor television shows based on their own interpretations of what’s right and wrong,”” said Michael Pheneger, Treasurer of the ACLU of Florida. “”What we’re seeing here is the latest manifestation of a political drive to impose a particular viewpoint on the residents of Hillsborough County. This kind of blatant disregard for the First Amendment violates everybody’s rights.””

The ACLU complaint also argues that the termination of funding violates the plaintiffs’ free speech rights and serves as a breach of contract between the county and Speak Up. The two entities entered into a two-year contract on October 1, 2001 that expressly prohibits government officials from “”exercising any editorial control over a public access channel.””

In addition to Speak Up, other plaintiffs in the case are: Mary Jane Williamson, the Tampa Bay Community Network’s Community Outreach Production Coordinator, who produces shows about non-profit social service organizations; and Lutz resident Betty S. Cohen, a Hillsborough County cable subscriber.

In addition to Rebein, Mark Brown, ACLU of Florida cooperating attorney; Rochelle Reback, Legal Counsel for Speak Up; and Deanna A. Tedone, a private attorney in Tampa, are also representing the plaintiffs in the case.

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