BOSTON (AP) - A federal court has ruled that nonprofessional news
gatherers have the same rights as professionals, supporting a community
gadfly who claimed she was muzzled by a public access cable company.
It is the first ruling of its kind, said the American Civil Liberties
Union, which represented plaintiff Patricia Demarest in her fight with
Athol/Orange Community Television.
"It will open so many more doors for common citizens to use public access
as a public forum and a place to speak their minds," said Demarest,
co-producer of the program "Think Tank 2000."
"It's a fight for any common citizen to bring forth ideas and generate
Demarest used the program to accuse local officials in the central
Massachusetts town of Athol of conflicts of interest. But after she broadcast
the grilling she gave one official, she was suspended by the cable company,
whose board is appointed by the city. The company also changed its rules to
ban controversial programming, requiring broadcasters to get written permission
from anyone they portrayed.
Last week, however, U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor in Springfield ruled that
such shows constitute a "public forum" and have First Amendment
protection. AOTV lawyer Peter Epstein said he had not read the verdict and could
The cable company said after several controversial broadcasts in 2000 that
the regulation requiring written consent was necessary to prevent unfair
coverage. The ACLU argued that would prevent coverage of any public official.
Cable access provides the same opportunity to share ideas as printed leaflets
and soap boxes did in the past, said Bill Newman, director of the western
Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU.
"Citizen producers of shows are entitled to the same First Amendment
protections as producers of shows for large media outlets," Newman said.
The judge essentially agreed, writing that the requirement "made news
makers news editors. By refusing to sign a release form, Athol's news
makers could ensure that their images did not appear on AOTV."
Ponsor also struck down an AOTV rule that prohibits broadcasters from
showing illegal acts. Such a requirement, he said, would have prevented the
broadcast of "some of the most important moments in American history,"
including footage of the Bloody Sunday attack on civil rights marchers in