Budget cuts? This was shameless censorship
© St. Petersburg Times
Over the years I have griped that public access channels on cable TV aren't really "free speech." They are the opposite. They are artificial venues that the entire public is forced to pay for.
But in its current campaign to cut off money for public access TV, the Hillsborough County Commission is being pig-headedly wrong. It is engaging in brutish censorship and deserves to lose in federal court.
What Hillsborough is doing is censorship because the commission -- by the flat admission of its own current and former members -- is acting out of specific dislike for some of the channel's programming.
The government can't do that.
The government never, ever gets to pick which speech of the citizens it likes, and will subsidize, and which speech it dislikes, and will punish by revoking that subsidy.
It doesn't matter if the speech is juvenile, indecent, offensive, gross or just plain unpopular, all of which is the case here.
What about obscenity?
Well, obscenity is illegal. It can be prosecuted. But in this case, the elected state attorney of Hillsborough County, Mark Ober, has said the programming in dispute does not meet the legal test of obscenity.
So the county can't censor it.
With admirable cleverness, the County Commission then tried a new strategy. It tried to kill the whole channel. It voted to take away the entire $355,000 appropriation.
That isn't censorship, the county innocently argues, with a little halo over its head. It is merely a budget decision.
The county says it's totally within the County Commission's power to decide how to spend the taxpayers' money -- and how not to spend it. It's none of the courts' business.
Except, you know what?
It's not true. Spending decisions aren't always totally within the county's power.
Let's use an extreme example.
The county could never vote to cut services only for, say, black people.
It could never vote to pay female workers only half what men get paid. A court would jump all over those things.
In other words, the county can't violate the Constitution simply by hiding behind a claim of unreviewable "budget decisions."
(By the way, this "budget decision" would be more convincing if the commissioners also had voted to eliminate their own TV channel, which costs several times as much money, and which they use wickedly for propaganda.)
Unfortunately for Hillsborough, this sort of trick has been tried many times before. The courts have ruled often that if the government's clear motive is censorship, it can't hide behind another explanation.
In Hillsborough, there have been months of demagoguery over the salacious content of one of the programs on the channel. Cutting off the channel's money now obviously is a continuation of that fight.
State of mind matters. Intent matters. Ironically, the county probably could have killed public access years ago, in the complete absence of controversy, and gotten away with it.
One of the precedents being cited by the public access side is the 1991 federal case of Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture Inc. v. City of Miami. That museum exhibited certain artists that angered the local Cuban-American community and even resulted in a pipe-bombing of the building. Caving to the pressure, the city announced it would not renew the museum's lease on city property.
But a federal judge ruled that the act of not renewing a lease, ordinarily a routine use of the city's power, could not be wielded as a tool of censorship. Several other cases have blocked governments from canceling or not renewing contracts to punish speech protected by the First Amendment.
The sole and entire purpose of the Hillsborough County Commission's budget decision was to punish content. The commissioners said so themselves. The bell has been rung and can't be unrung -- in fact, this County Commission probably will never be able to cut public access funding. So it should give up the fight and look for something better to do.
But since they ought to know they are wrong, and choose deliberately to persist anyway, they should repay the legal bill out of their own pockets when they lose.
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