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L.A. Argues Limits on TV Cable Before Court

Associated Press

The City of Los Angeles told the Supreme Court today that it was trying to save its citizens the inconvenience of dug-up streets when it refused to let a second company build a cable TV system in the city’s South-Central area.

“What we are doing is regulating our right of ways in the public interest,” said Edward J. Perez, assistant city attorney for Los Angeles.

But an attorney for the cable company told the nine justices that Los Angeles was trying to restrict the company’s First Amendment rights as an electronic “publisher” with a franchising process that specifies what kinds of programs must be offered.

“If there is any content regulation, it is incidental,” the city attorney said, conceding that there are “broad categories of programming” which a franchise applicant must agree to provide.

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Harold R. Farrow, attorney for Preferred Communications Inc., said there is plenty of room on the utility poles in Los Angeles to sustain a second system, but that the utility companies refused to lease it to Preferred until it had a license.

“We’re dealing with a licensing-of-speech case,” he said. “It’s a simple denial of a franchise to speak.”

Their arguments came in a legal case of potentially momentous importance to the cable television industry, since it could determine the power of communities to grant exclusive cable television franchises.

A federal appeals court last year ruled that such exclusive arrangements may sometimes violate the free-speech rights of excluded companies.

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The ruling by the San Francisco-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals marked the first time any federal court found the right to hold a cable franchise to be constitutionally protected.

A long series of court rulings makes clear there is no such constitutional right to operate a television or radio station.

The 9th Circuit Court said state and local governments must have a substantial reason for denying access to utility poles and other public facilities capable of accommodating more than one cable operator.

The appeals court ruling cast doubt on the constitutionality of a 1984 law in which Congress appeared to give communities a legal right to grant exclusive cable franchises.

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