Exclusive Cable TV Franchises in Doubt : Supreme Court Cites Free Speech in Los Angeles Case

Associated Press

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling today in a Los Angeles case, raised the possibility that communities may be barred from granting exclusive cable television franchises.

The nine justices said cable franchise activities “plainly implicate First Amendment interests” that protect free expression.

But--stopping short of ruling that a cable television company has a constitutional right to operate in a particular community--the court ordered further hearings in a dispute between the City of Los Angeles and Preferred Communications Inc., a company that was denied a franchise there.

The cable case has potentially far-reaching importance. But today’s decision left unanswered what power communities have to award exclusive cable TV licenses.


Traditional Media Comparison

Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the court, said, “Cable television partakes of some of the aspects of speech and the communication of ideas as do the traditional enterprises of newspaper and book publishers, public speakers and pamphleteers.”

He said, “We do not think, however, that it is desirable to express any more detailed views on the proper resolution of the First Amendment question . . . without a fuller development of the disputed issues in the case.”

The ruling upheld a decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that ordered further hearings in the case.


The 9th Circuit court said exclusive cable TV franchises sometimes may violate the free speech rights of excluded companies and that 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.

Physical Capacity Noted

Rehnquist noted today that Los Angeles has admitted it has the physical capacity on its utility poles and its rights-of-way to accommodate more than one cable system.

But the city said stringing additional cable would create a “visual blight” and could cause traffic delays and other hazards.


Rehnquist said, “Where speech and conduct are joined in a single course of action, the First Amendment values must be balanced against competing societal interests.”

Los Angeles, like many other cities, awards cable franchises for various regions within the city by competitive bidding. A single cable operator is awarded the franchise for each region.

Consideration of Sympathy

In another decision today, the court agreed to decide whether juries may be told not to consider sympathy when sentencing convicted murderers to death or life in prison.


The justice said they will consider reinstating the death sentence of a California man, Albert Brown Jr., convicted of murdering a 15-year-old Riverside, Calif., girl six years ago. The California Supreme Court had ruled that Brown is entitled to a new sentencing trial because jurors were told not to consider sympathy when deciding his punishment.

The court also refused to lift a “gag order” against lawyers for Richard Miller, the former FBI agent charged with passing government secrets to the Soviet Union and currently on trial in Los Angeles.