Minor Candidates Can Be Excluded
By Richard Carelli
WASHINGTON (AP) Public broadcast stations can exclude candidates not deemed "newsworthy" from debates sponsored by those stations, the Supreme Court ruled today.
Voting 6-3 in an Arkansas case, the court said the nation's state-owned stations need not invite all ballot-qualified fringe candidates to participate in their debates. State employees can exclude the candidates without violating their free-speech rights, the court ruled.
Government-run stations do not run afoul of the Constitution's First Amendment by exercising "viewpoint-neutral exercise of journalistic discretion," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court.
The ruling could have a wide impact even though it directly affects only government-owned not privately owned broadcast stations. About two-thirds of the nation's noncommercial, educational stations are licensed to state and local governments or their agencies.
The decision reversed a federal appeals court ruling that said editors of the five-station Arkansas Educational Television Network violated Ralph Forbes' free-speech rights by not inviting him to a 1992 debate of congressional candidates.
Forbes, a former American Nazi Party member who now calls himself a Christian supremacist, was an independent candidate who got about 2.5 percent of the votes cast. Only Democrats and Republicans were invited to the televised, pre-election debate of candidates in the district in which Forbes was running.
He later sued, seeking monetary damages. Today's ruling kills his lawsuit.
In other action today, the court:
After learning of the decision in the broadcast case, Forbes said he was "utterly stunned and shocked."
"They have overturned the First Amendment," he said in a telephone interview from London, Ark. "It's very Orwellian. It's very chilling. It ought to scare the hell out of anybody with any brains."
Susan Howarth, executive director of the Arkansas Educational Television Network, praised the court's ruling.
"The court has affirmed that we as government-licensed broadcasters have those same rights and freedoms (as private broadcasters) to be able to serve our viewers," she said.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that by sponsoring the debate, the state-owned network, which is run by the Arkansas Educational Television Commission, had created a limited public forum from which a ballot-qualified candidate like Forbes could be excluded only for some compelling reason.
The justices were told the lower court's ruling could result in fewer debates of candidates and less coverage of politics. The access requirement also could squelch debates on controversial social issues, lawyers for the Arkansas network argued.
Kennedy wrote for the court that the television debate sponsored by the commission had been a nonpublic forum, for which access could be restricted as long as those restrictions were reasonable and not an effort to suppress expression merely because public officials opposed Forbes' views.
"The evidence provided powerful support for the jury's express finding that AETC's exclusion of Forbes was not the result of 'political pressure from anyone inside or outside'" the network, Kennedy said. "There is no serious argument that AETC did not act in good faith in this case. AETC excluded Forbes because the voters lacked interest in his candidacy, not because AETC itself did."
Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer.
Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.
Writing for the three, Stevens said the court "understates the constitutional importance of the distinction between state ownership and private ownership of broadcast facilities."
The free-speech dispute made for a lively Supreme Court argument session last October, during which Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist invented an unpopular candidate, Willie Wacko, considered a loser even by his friends.
"Do they have to give him access?" Rehnquist asked.
The case is Arkansas Educational Television Network vs. Forbes, 96-779.
© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company