GrassRoots hits the ‘stop’ button
October 17, 2007
Do you want to see your neighbors naked?How about watching a Ku Klux Klan membership drive, or graphic images of a slaughterhouse posted by an animal rights group?Some public access television proponents say you may have no choice except to change the channel.
Steve Campbell, a Glenwood Springs resident and founder of Citizens for 9/11 Truth, recently asked Aspen’s public access station, GrassRoots TV 12 Aspen, to air “Judea Declares War on Germany: A Critical Look at World War II” on Oct. 1. The film denies conventional wisdom about the Holocaust, and its producers are under a judicial gag order in their native Australia.The GrassRoots board of directors held a public meeting Oct. 11, and some 30 citizens spoke out about the film. A few stumped for free speech on GrassRoots, and although most in attendance hadn’t seen the film, the majority called the very idea of Holocaust denial offensive and they did not want to see it.After hearing from the community, the GrassRoots board of directors declined to air the film, calling it obscene and “repugnant to the generally accepted notion of what is appropriate in our community.”Alan Feldman, the GrassRoots board chairman, said the station reserves the right to deny access to anyone who wants to show material that the board deems obscene. GrassRoots Executive Director John Masters stressed the station is for “community access” and is subject to community standards.”The board stands by its decision and we will accept all consequences,” Feldman said. “We stand firm.”Sound simple?Well, not so fast.The controversy has raised fundamental questions about public access television. Is it a “public forum,” like a speaker’s corner in a park? Or is it a more regulated environment? Who defines what the community wants? Can the GrassRoots board filter programming while touting the First Amendment as their guiding document?
When cable TV was on the rise in the late 1960s, Federal Communications Commission officials feared the glut of new programming would bombard viewers with commercial content, and large corporations would control the programming that reached the nation’s living rooms.As a result, the FCC mandated that cable providers make space for community-generated programming and give citizens access to at least one channel.”The fear was that everybody would become global corporate,” Masters said. “In 1971, a handful of communities took the initiative.”That’s how GrassRoots TV was born.One of the first and today one of the longest-surviving public access stations in the U.S., plucky GrassRoots sprung from the fertile soil of hippie-era Aspen. And GrassRoots programming was controversial from the start, not just for its low production values but for chronicling zany events, interviewing mavericks and even showing the first topless woman on TV, Masters said.
The rules about content on public access television have always been murky, however.A municipaljudge once closed down GrassRoots for a few days for airing a video of two women, bare to the waist, shaving each other’s heads, Masters said. But neither staff nor the GrassRoots board balked at “Hole,” a documentary submitted by Aspen police officer and performance artist Rick Magnuson during his 2006 bid for Pitkin County Sheriff, Masters said. Magnuson was shown from a distance masturbating into a hole in the desert.Masters scheduled the program at night, and said, “There was nothing that anyone was going to get upset about.”When Campbell brought “Judea Declares War on Germany” to GrassRoots, he already had a track record of bringing controversial material from distant sources, Masters said. The board had expressed concern over other videos that refuted the conventional wisdom about the Sept. 11 attacks. And when Masters saw the title of the latest film, he forwarded the link with a streaming video of “Judea” to the GrassRoots board.Nothing has challenged GrassRoots’ mission of “lowering the barriers of communication” and providing uncensored public access quite like this recent Holocaust-denial film, according to board members.But officials from some other Colorado public access stations wondered about the fuss in Aspen.
“We wouldn’t even bat an eye. We would just play it,” said Tony Shawcross, executive director of Denver Open Media (DOM), the state capital’s public access station.Shawcross has aired controversial shows and weathered public outcry, he said. But unless a program’s content is copyrighted, commercial, or breaks obscenity standards, which must be determined by a judge, Denver Open Media officials will play anything. That’s the very definition of public access TV, Shawcross said.Denver Open Media doesn’t prescreen any material. If a program receives complaints, Shawcross will pull it and review the content with a group of board members and citizens. But only illegal content, such as child pornography, would stop a show from airing, Shawcross said.Durango Community Access Television (DCAT) follows a similar policy.”As long as it doesn’t violate any laws, it runs on our channel,” said Chris Hall, executive director of DCAT.Station staff members ask producers if there is anything “adult” in their work and, if so, the station slots the show at night, Hall said.”We’re the medium. We’re not the message,” Hall said. And he was surprised to hear that the GrassRoots board denied Campbell. “Generally public access is public access,” Hall said.The Durango station faced controversy over an anti-war film that depicted a protester wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with foul language, but Hall aired the show anyway (the producer later edited the film to avoid further controversy but was not required to do so).”It’s something that all access centers worry about,” Hall said of the fallout from “bad apples” and inappropriate content.But that fear doesn’t affect the Durango policy of unfettered access, he stressed.”There are so few avenues left for free speech,” Hall said.Thinking along the same lines, Denver Open Media’s Shawcross hopes to fully automate the station in the future, leaving all content decisions in the hands of citizen-producers.
In 1992, Denver Community Television, predecessor to Denver Open Media, denied videographer Tony Palange the right to air a gay-themed program.
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With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Palange took the cable provider and the city to court.”There were some scenes that were alleged to have shown sex,” said Darryn Zuehlke, director of the Denver Office of Telecommunications, a cable regulatory agency that reports to Denver City Council. “DCTV prescreened the program and denied airing it because they felt that it was potentially objectionable material.”But a district court judge ruled the material was not obscene under Colorado law and ruled that the station engaged in censorship, Zuehlke said.And that is the precedent, according to Jim Horwood, a Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in public access issues: Public access stations cannot limit free speech protected in the First Amendment, he said.A member of the National Alliance for Community Media board, Horwood cited cases ranging from the obscenity ruling in Denver to controversy over Ku Klux Klan propaganda in the South. Attempts to deny public access based on content are commonly shot down in court, Horwood said. But here, he said, the law is murky.Usually following a first-come, first-served model of open access, public access channels typically err on the side of free speech, Horwood said. If a nonprofit board starts acting like a gatekeeper of programming, then they become responsible for content and open to possible lawsuits. Unlike the editors of a privately owned newspaper or television station, public access station managers have a mandate to provide open access to the community; what exactly that means, especially when it comes to controversial or offensive programming, is unclear.Horwood recommends public access stations stay completely transparent. When faced with a controversial submission, station managers should simply “bite your lip and put it on as a way to encourage other counterprogramming,” Horwood said.
In fact, controversial groups often hope they’ll be denied access, he said, because being censored makes them free-speech martyrs.Only very graphic material, such as a sex act, can safely be barred, Horwood said.”But you don’t know whether it’s obscene or libelous unless a court has told you so,” Horwood said. “It may be vile and offensive, but it should be allowed from a First Amendment perspective.”They can think it’s obscene, and they may be right,” Horwood said. “But if you start getting in this area, you’d better be right every time.”Horwood said the U.S. is built on controversial speech. If Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights marchers were held to community standards under Jim Crow laws in the 1960s South, he said, then there would have been neither marches nor a civil rights movement.While there is some debate about whether public access television is a true “public forum,” meaning the stations cannot deny someone from speaking, Horwood warned against making “rules on the fly if you don’t like something.””The area is murky,” Horwood said. “Because it’s murky, people tend to err on the side of letting it on.”
Some public access stations confine their programming to “locally-produced” work, but that limits a station from playing high-quality national programming – such as wildlife documentaries or public-service announcements – that are beneficial to a community, Horwood said.So what is the possible fallout of the GrassRoots TV board decision? “They could be sued by the sponsor of the program for violating his First Amendment rights for not putting something on a public forum,” Horwood said.Masters said he supports the notion of open and unfettered access. GrassRoots aims to be a place where citizens can generate their own content while abiding by community standards, he said. With its recent decision about “Judea Declares War on Germany,” the GrassRoots board has indicated that it will call the shots on community norms. Board members have promised a policy statement in coming days.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is email@example.com.