On an Electronic Soapbox: Is a Privately-Operated Public Access Television Channel Subject to the First Amendment?

The Issue

The First Amendment normally only limits and regulates governmental action, not the acts of private entities; therefore, First Amendment violation claims are only viable if they are against a state actor. But when does a private entity become a state actor for First Amendment purposes? Regarding public access television channels, this answer has remained unclear. Public access channels are set aside for public, educational, or governmental purposes and a cable system operator provides them at the request of local government. The Second Circuit recently held in Halleck v. Manhattan Cmty. Access Corp. (2018) that a public access television station operated by a non-profit corporation is a public forum and considered a governmental actor for constitutional purposes. In making this determination, the Second Circuit acknowledged that it was in direct contrast with its sister D.C. Circuit’s decision in Alliance for Community Media v. FCC (1995).

The Split

In Halleck, two producers for the Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN), a not-for-profit corporation designated as the operator of the public access channel by the Manhattan Borough President, were suspended after they produced content that presented MNN in a negative light. The producers brought a claim against MNN, stating that as a public access channel under municipal control, its employees were subject to First Amendment restrictions. The Second Circuit found in favor of the producers, analogizing a public access channel to “a speaker’s soapbox” and finding support in a concurring opinion written by Justice Kennedy and joined by Justice Ginsburg in Denver Area Educ. Telcoms. Consortium v. FCC (1996).

In Denver Area Educ. Telecoms. Consortium, the plurality opinion did not definitively resolve the classification of such channels as public fora. Instead, two opposing camps each articulated different views. On one side, Justice Kennedy and Justice Ginsburg concluded that:

public fora do not have to be physical gathering places, nor are they limited to property owned by the government. Indeed, in the majority of jurisdictions, title to some of the most traditional of public fora, streets and sidewalks, remains in private hands…Public access channels are analogous; they are public fora even though they operate over property to which the cable operator holds title.

On the opposing side, Justice Thomas, Justice Scalia, and Chief Justice Rehnquist stated that because the channel was privately owned it could not be a public forum. As neither view held majority support, the issue remained unanswered by the Supreme Court.

In Alliance for Community Media, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held that a public access channel was not a public forum and, therefore, not subject to First Amendment restrictions. The court differentiated parks and streets—which it classified as examples of public fora—from public access channels because the channels “belong to private cable operators; are managed by them as part of their systems; and are among the products for which operators collect a fee from their subscribers.” In contrast to the reasoning in Halleck, the D.C. Circuit held that although a public access channel “must provide communications facilities to those who desire access for their own purposes,” it is not a public forum “in the First Amendment sense and does not transform the entity’s discretionary carriage decisions into decisions of the government.”

Looking to the Supreme Court for an answer

Labeling a television station as a public forum carries significant consequences for its operators as it limits their ability to restrict content. Therefore, whether courts classify channels as modern versions of a town square—or the equivalent—has direct implications on the programming that can be broadcast to the public. In his plurality opinion in Denver Area Educ. Telecoms. Consortium, Justice Breyer said it would be “premature” to classify public access channels as public fora. (Or to not classify them as such.) However, given that 22 years have elapsed since the Court’s opinion and that a circuit split has subsequently developed, perhaps the Supreme Court would consider the issue appropriately mature enough to return with a clear answer sometime soon.