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FREE SPEECH WATCH : Air Rights

The activist group ACT UP is not a mainstream, polite outfit. Its cause is the elimination of AIDS--a cause that many share. But its extremist methods many people, including many gays, don’t share: It can be confrontational and aggressively offensive. The film “Stop the Church,” which chronicles an ACT UP demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, was scheduled for airing Friday night on KCET Channel 28. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, outraged at the film’s anti-Catholic tone, denounced it and the Los Angeles public television station.

That denunciation is certainly within Cardinal Mahony’s role as leader of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the nation’s largest. Many viewers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, would find the film amateurish and less than riveting; in terms of its quality, one could question KCET’s decision to air it.

But does KCET deserve to lose public financial support because it sometimes airs films that offend? We don’t believe so. Public TV, which depends so heavily on private donations, cannot fulfill its proper function if it is held economic hostage whenever it airs a controversial program, which it has done before and will likely do again.

Certainly public TV’s primary purpose is not to offend. But we agree with KCET management’s assertion that one of the mandates of public TV must be “to explore significant issues of controversy and present a wide diversity of opinion and programming, including opinions which may not be generally popular and material which may not be to everyone’s taste.”

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