Cable company ordered to broadcast show featuring pro-marijuana candidates

Monday, October 12, 1998

A cable company in New York recently aired an episode of “The Hippie Talk Show,” which featured candidates from the Marijuana Reform Party, on public access television under orders from a federal judge.

The controversy began when George Moss, the independent television producer of the show, was told by Cablevision officials that he could not broadcast the segment which featured three candidates from the Marijuana Reform Party on the Nassau County public access channel.

Moss and the three candidates — Thomas Leighton, Jeffrey C. Wright and Corrine Kurtz — sued in federal court, contending that Cablevision unlawfully censored the show in violation of a federal statute that prohibits cable operators from exercising “editorial control” over public access programs that do not contain “obscenity, indecency or nudity.”

Cablevision said that it was merely following a policy of not allowing commercial use of the public access channel. According to the company, the candidates' campaign advertisements would constitute commercial use of the channel.

Federal District Judge Arthur Spatt granted Moss and the three candidates a preliminary injunction last week in Moss v. Cablevision Systems Corp., ordering Cablevision to permit the airing of the program.

“The loss of opportunity for expression of political ideas, especially in the context of political speech just prior to the November election, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury because of the value placed on freedom of speech in the marketplace of ideas,” wrote Spatt.

Spatt rejected Cablevision's argument that the speech of the MPR candidates would commercialize the public access channel. Instead, Spatt determined that the speech was a form of political expression. “Protecting political speech on public issues has been a central concern of the Supreme Court,” the judge wrote.

Quoting from former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan's opinion in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, Spatt also wrote: “The First Amendment reflects a 'profound national commitment' to the principle that 'debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open.'”

Thomas J. Hillgardner, attorney for Moss and the candidates, said that the injunction “is a victory for small political parties. Public access television is a mechanism to level the playing field in elections. The judge's decision recognized that the speech in question was purely political.”

William Savino, attorney for Cablevision, said: “I have no comment because the matter remains in litigation.”