Supreme Court to Weigh Limits on Adult Cable
By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court said yesterday it would decide whether Playboy Television and other adult cable networks can offer sexually explicit programs to subscribers around the clock or whether the federal government may restrict such shows to late-night hours.
The federal government is appealing a district court ruling that struck down a provision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requiring that any adult programming that could not be fully scrambled or blocked from non-subscribing households be shown only between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Justice Department lawyers told the high court that Congress wanted to protect children from exposure to the glimpses of sex scenes that can be viewed through partially scrambled signals and the erotic dialogue that accompanies them. But a federal district court in Delaware, where Playboy Entertainment Group challenged the law, said the provision violates First Amendment free speech guarantees because it is not the least restrictive way to further the government's interest and attack what is known as "signal bleed."
The district court noted that the provision requires complete scrambling of the video signal even to households without children and effectively imposes a ban on adult cable networks for two-thirds of the day. Further, the court observed that a separate portion of the law already requires cable operators to fully block both audio and video signals, free of charge, if a subscriber requests it. The case of United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group will be heard next fall and a ruling is likely sometime in 2000. Separately, in a day of varied court business, the justices let stand, without any comment, an appeals court decision that allows prosecutors to promise leniency to witnesses in exchange for their testimony against other criminal defendants.
The court's action yesterday closed out a controversial chapter in federal criminal law that began a year ago when a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals challenged the standard prosecutorial practice of securing accomplices' testimony in order to build a case against more dangerous defendants.
In a novel interpretation that conflicted with many other courts, the 10th Circuit panel said such deals violated a federal bribery statute that prohibits offering anything of value to a witness for his testimony. The full 10th Circuit quickly suspended the panel's decision and eventually reversed the interpretation.
"In light of the longstanding practice of leniency for testimony, we must presume that if Congress had intended [to make such practice illegal under the bribery law] it would have done so in clear . . . language," the full appeals court said. Yesterday's order in Singleton v. United States leaves that decision and an entrenched prosecutorial practice in place.
Ruling in a Maryland case yesterday, the court said police need not obtain a warrant to search a car they have reason to believe is carrying illegal drugs. Consistent with prior cases, the justices said a search warrant is not required even if police had sufficient time to request one after receiving a tip that a car would be carrying drugs. The decision in Maryland v. Dyson reversed a Maryland Court of Special Appeals opinion and reinstated Kevin Darnell Dyson's conviction on charges of conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute.
The justices also ruled yesterday that new federal limits on attorneys' fees awarded to inmates who successfully challenge prison conditions apply only to legal work done after the law took effect in 1996 (John
son v. Hadix).
© 1999 The Washington Post Company