In a stubborn confrontation weighing the rights of citizens against the needs of the police, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is trying to block a rule proposed by the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. which would give police total control over phone service to a building in which hostages are being held.
The rule has been proposed by the phone company in the form of a tariff addition now under consideration by the D.C. Public Service Commission. Two conferences attended by lawyers for the ACLU, the phone company and the D.C. Police Department to resolve serious differences among the groups have been unsuccessful.
In view of the impasse, the ACLU called this month for formal hearings on the matter.
The need for such a rule, phone company officials say, became evident during the Hanafi Muslim takeover here four months ago. At the time, members of the news media dialed into buildings held by the terrorists and, in some cases, reached the captors. Police say this aggravated an already tense situation.
The proposed tariff states:
"Upon written representation to the telephone company or oral representation followed by a written confirmation within 12 hours by a ranking law enforcement officer, that telephone access to a particular customer's service or station is necessary to protect lives, the telephone company may limit the length of or preclude communications of other than law enforcement officers to such service or station and temporarily change the number of the service or station or take such other steps as necessary to control incoming calls to such service or station to insure that such law enforcement officials have access to the service or station."
Lawyers for the ACLU called the proposal vague and termed a threat to civil rights. "The ACLU opposes adoption of the proposed tariff on the ground that it unnecessarily accords the police broad and improper discretion to abridge the exercise of First Amendment rights," the ACLU charged in one of two briefs filed with the commission.
Further the ACLU claims the commission lacks the jurisdictional power to consider the phone company's request, since the primary motivation for enacting the rule "has nothing to do with the furnishing of utility service."
The only proper forum for this kind of action, say ACLU attorneys, is the City Council.
CBS News and NBC News also have objected to the proposal as an unncessary and unwise infringement of the rights of the press and public, subject to potential abuses by the police in other than hostage contexts.
But the phone company is standing by its proposal. "The question is how to furnish phone service in a situation which involves a threat of life," said an attorney for Chesapeake and Potomac. "This, we hope, will alleviate the problem we had."
As for the charge of a civil rights violation. Satterfield said no constitutional issues are involved. "There is no constitutional right to phone service, and we're only talking about a tempoary suspension anyway," he remarked.