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The Supreme Court asks whether a New York City network is a “state actor”

FREEDOM OF SPEECH, one of the five rights enshrined in the First Amendment, offers little solace to people silenced by private entities. If an arm of the government is suppressing your speech—on a street corner or in a school, say—you are protected. But a company, club or newspaper unaffiliated with the government has no obligation to let you speak; they can curate ideas within their walls or pages however they like. The line between spaces where free speech is a constitutional right and where it is not is to an extent clearly defined, but there are some venues where an otherwise private entity behaves like a state or acts as an agent of the government. One such arena posed a conundrum for the Supreme Court on February 25th, when the justices heard Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck.

Halleck concerns DeeDee Halleck, a producer, and Jesus Melendez, a playwright and poet. Both complain of discriminatory treatment at the hands of the Manhattan Community Access Corporation, the company that runs the Manhattan Neighbourhood Network (MNN), a public-access cable network in New York City. New York requires any market with 36 cable channels to include public-access channels; in New York City, MNN operates those channels. According to state law, “[c]hannel time shall be scheduled on the public access channel by the entity responsible for the administration thereof” on “a first-come, first-served, nondiscriminatory basis”. Furthermore, neither the city nor MNN may exercise “any editorial control” over the material to be broadcast unless it is obscene or otherwise unprotected speech under the First Amendment.

With these parameters in mind, the plaintiffs balked when MNN pulled “The 1% Visit El Barrio”, their 25-minute video critical of the network, and went on to inform Ms Halleck that she was barred from airing anything for one year and that Mr Melendez would never broadcast on MNN again. Given the intimate relationship between MNN and the city, the pair claimed, the public-access network was bound to respect their First Amendment rights. But the company running the show is private, MNN pointed out, and it is a mistake to regard the public-access cable network as a quasi state actor that must honour anybody’s freedom of speech.

At the hearing on February 25th, three justices including John Roberts, the chief, were sceptical of the content-producers’ claim of mistreatment. Justice Brett Kavanaugh disagreed that New York’s relationship with MNN transforms the public-access airwaves into a something akin to a “traditional public” forum like a town square where the First Amendment reigns. MNN is more like a “utility”, he suggested; and since it is a “private company”, MNN need not respect its content providers’ freedom of speech. Justice Samuel Alito noted an oddity. The plaintiffs’ claim is based on MNN’s mandated “first-come, first-served” broadcast policy that allows for no editorial discretion, he said. But if the state did allow MNN to pick and choose which shows to air and gave it “authority to engage in viewpoint discrimination”, the First Amendment would not impose any constraint. That, said Justice Alito, “seems exactly backwards”. Paul Hughes, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, responded that giving an entity the power to curate speech in that way would turn the broadcasts into “government speech”, a category of expression that cannot spur First Amendment challenges.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor seemed more receptive to Ms Halleck and Mr Melendez’s arguments. Justice Ginsburg said MNN had “no independent judgment about what will air or when it will air”. The broadcaster has “been designated by the city to administer a public forum”, Justice Kagan added, and must be evenhanded in airing content submitted to it by all members of the public. Justice Sotomayor made essentially the same point, comparing what New York has done to a state renting a theatre and inviting anyone to use it while hiring an administrator who minds the schedule and keeps the facility clean. Well, Mr Hughes replied, “I don’t know of many designated public fora that are controlled by independent parties”.

Two justices, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, were silent, and one, Stephen Breyer, was torn. Laying bare his thinking, Justice Breyer asked a barrage of questions of both sides and told Mr Hughes that he is “not taking a side or the other” as he is “genuinely uncertain” about the right outcome. Some characteristics of the MNN’s charter seem favourable to the plaintiffs’ complaint, he said, ticking off five considerations, while others seem to cut against them. Near the end of the hearing, he wondered if the “first-come, first-served’ rule may be merely “hortatory”—and thus unenforceable—if there is no practical way a videographer can get relief following a discriminatory editorial decision.??

However Halleck comes out, it is unlikely the justices will use the case as an opportunity to fundamentally rethink their complex and rather fraught state-actor and public-forum doctrines. That will reassure internet companies like Facebook and Twitter, which, together with other web businesses, filed an amicus brief warning of “serious adverse consequences” if social-media platforms and news sites are to be construed as state actors obligated to protect the First Amendment rights of all their users. Such a change in the law would bar the companies from removing “videos that contain nudity, profanity and expletives, hate speech or depictions of animal cruelty”. It would prohibit them, the brief says, from censoring racist or bullying content on their platforms that “inflict great pain or emotional stress on others”. It seems the decision in Halleck will be limited to the analog and rather parochial world of public-access cable—and broadcasts that are fewer and tamer than those streaming on digital devices, with far smaller audiences.

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