JLF Piedmont Triad Blog

Political advocacy on public access television

CJ’s Donna Martinez reports on the City of Durham’s public affairs TV show advocating for Durham County’s proposed half-cent sales tax increase, which would fund public transportation initiatives including —- you guessed it — a light rail system.

A Durham resident has filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections over an installment of City Life, which cites traffic congestion, high gas prices, and the growing population before introducing guests advocating transportation projects that would benefit from the sales tax increase. CJ reports no opposing points of view were presented, which might state that a light rail system would be a money pit that would do little to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.

The N&R’s Doug Clark draws a parallel between the situation in Durham the one here in Guilford County, where a member of a political action committee showed a video advocating for conservative candidates in the upcoming City Council election— including incumbent council members and Mayor Bill Knight —- during the public speaking portion of last Thursday’s county commissioners’ meeting.

The issue —as it is in Durham —is whether or not public access television should broadcast political endorsements. Clark draws the distinction between a citizen speaking at a public meeting and government advocacy:

Here in Guilford, it wasn’t the government but an individual representing a political action committee, Conservatives for Guilford County, who triggered similar concerns.

…..After checking on legalities, the city of Greensboro, which operates the public-access Channel 13 system, decided it was OK to rebroadcast the segment.

Now both Durham and Greensboro take the position that it isn’t illegal to air political advocacy programming on public-access TV.

Whether it’s good policy is another question. And it most definitely is not good policy.

I also understand —as Clark pointed out in an earlier post— that conservatives —myself included —would howl if a video advocating for liberal candidates like Robbie Perkins and Yvonne Johnson were shown during a public meeting.

But there’s still a huge difference between an individual speaking at a public meeting and government-orchestrated advocacy. Commissioners had no control over what a speaker says during the public comment period. And some commissioners wondered what the difference is between showing a video and simply speaking the words.

The other point is candidates for City Council routinely speak during council meetings. They don’t identify themselves as candidates or urge the public to vote for them; yet when they speak about a particular issue, they’re letting citizens know how they would vote on that particular issue should it come before council.

With all this in mind, I have to come down on the side of a citizen exercising his right to free speech.

Below is the aforementioned video, first posted over at Guarino’s.

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