The Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments from attorneys on either side of a First Amendment issue involving Woodstock resident and public access television pioneer and activist DeeDee Halleck this past Monday, February 25.
The case involves a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit that allowed a lawsuit brought by Halleck and poet/playwright/television producer Jesus Melendez against Manhattan Community Access Corporation, known as “MNN,” to proceed. Halleck and Melendez have argued that when MNN not only barred a video the two had made and broadcast that criticized Manhattan’s main public access provider, but barred Halleck from access to the station for a year, and Melendez for his lifetime, MNN violated their First Amendment rights.
According to Amy Howe, reporting on SCOTUS Blog, the one hour of oral arguments started with attorney Paul Hughes arguing on behalf of Halleck and Melendez, and the appeals court that ruled in their favor, that MNN’s public-access channels are public forums where speech is protected by the First Amendment, and is “a state actor because the local government chose the company to operate public-access channels on the borough’s cable system.”
Arguing on behalf of MNN, which appealed the Appeals Court’s decision, attorney Michael De Leeuw urged the justices to “preserve the lines between government action and private conduct,” according to Howe, and chastised Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg by saying that television, no matter whether public access or private, “has the power to curate the content that airs on its channels and to create its own content.”
Reports of the oral arguments noted that Ginsberg and justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor sided with the arguments regarding a public forum, while Chief Justice John Roberts emphasized the complexity involved in creating a truly public forum and Justice Brett Kavanagh emphasized that MNN is a private company, running on a privately-owned cable system. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas asked no questions.
Halleck added that the case, which is expected to be decided on by the end of June, “sounds complicated with issues that are not clear, but it comes more in focus when you see who is supporting whom.”
On behalf of MNN, she pointed out that amici briefs had been supplied by the libertarian Cato Institute, the National Cable Television Association, Atlantic Legal, Pacific Legal, and Chicago Access Network…several entities which appear to have ties to the Koch Brothers’ conservative backing. On behalf of Halleck and Melendez, amici briefs were filed by the ACLU, NYCLU, the National Campaign Against Censorship, the Alliance for Community Media, National Lawyers Guild Police Accountability Project, New York County Lawyers Association and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
Howe pointed out, in her blog, that internet giants such as Facebook and YouTube, along with several of the supreme court justices, questioned whether First Amendment rules might be made applicable to them in the future.
Hughes noted, during the hour of arguments, that the current case is “limited to the context of public forums and the administration of public forums being state action.”