Censorship Was the Real Reason Columbus City Officials Ended Public Access TV

Supporters of public access TV have wondered for years why the Columbus city government closed the station. The reasons given by the city never made much sense – until a previously hidden reason was revealed by a release of public records.

Bogus reason number 1: lack of money

When funding for public access TV was drastically cut in 2001, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman told The Other Paper that the action was not taken as a reaction to the station’s program content but because of “a lack of money.”

In response to questions about public access TV in 2006, Mike Brown in the mayor’s office likewise explained that the city “faced significant budget challenges during the recession of the early 2000s, and that led to significant reductions to . . . public financing for Public Access Television.” But he said the mayor supported “the concept” of public access TV.

The approval by Columbus voters of a 25% income-tax increase in 2009 and the resulting budget surpluses took away the “lack of money” explanation. The restoration of public access TV could therefore have been expected. But city officials didn’t do it.

Bogus reason number 2: the Internet

Instead the mayor’s spokesman, Dan Williamson, said in 2012 that the Internet had made public access TV superfluous. He wrote: “The public has more access to media than ever through YouTube, blogs and social media,” and “The mayor has no plans to bring back public access television.” ‘

Columbus City Council had taken the same position after the improved budget situation. City Council President Andrew Ginther’s chief of staff, Kenneth Paul, wrote in 2011: “The advent of social media, and the wide acceptance and accessibility to digital technology has changed the way we communicate. YouTube allows for the immediate and free global distribution of video, including political commentary.”

This second reason for opposing public access TV was also implausible, because the mayor and city council continued funding the city government’s TV channel on which they regularly appear. And they still flooded the TV airwaves with their political ads, funded mainly by big-money donors, during their campaigns for public office.  If ordinary citizens didn’t need TV for communicating to a mass audience but needed only the Internet, the same would be true for city officials.

Bogus reason number 3: lack of citizen interest

As revealed from a request for public records, other reasons for ending public access TV were given to the five-member Charter Review Commission appointed by the mayor and city council president in 2014.

At the commission’s June 11, 2014 meeting, a commissioner asked about the history of public access TV and received a response from Bryan Clark, city council’s legislative liaison to the commission. According to the meeting minutes, Clark told the commission that city council stopped funding public access TV “because there was low public interest and it was being used, at times, for obscene purposes.”

The claim about “low public interest” is as untenable as the claims about a lack of money and the availability of the Internet. The city has never presented research or statistics showing a lack of citizen interest in public access TV. The claim is thus self-serving and unsubstantiated. And it’s contradicted by the experience of persons who worked at the station, or submitted shows there, and received feedback from the public about the programming.

The real reason: censorship

This leaves as the remaining reason one that city officials concealed for about 13 years until it was let out of the bag at the sparsely attended commission meeting: a desire to suppress alleged obscene programming. In going after that programming, city officials had two choices.

The first was to pursue legal remedies against the one or two shows supposedly considered obscene, because the U.S. Supreme Court has held that obscenity is not protected speech under the First Amendment. This would address the alleged problems with the programs at issue, while protecting the free-speech rights of numerous other programs and their viewers.

The other alternative was to close the entire station because of the one or two shows, and in the process censor not only those programs but also all the shows containing expression clearly protected by the First Amendment.

City council chose the second route. This involved censoring a massive amount of constitutionally protected speech that Central Ohioans could have expressed and received to enhance their knowledge, personal growth, enjoyment, and ability to interact with and serve others.

Intellectual thieves and robbers . . . and worse

By concealing the real reason for their action, Columbus officials kept citizens from judging the propriety of what the city government did. It closed an entire TV station – in a nation that cherishes freedom of speech – for the purpose of suppressing one or two programs allegedly containing unprotected expression. This prevented ordinary Columbus citizens from sharing their views with a mass local audience through TV. And television is still the most important communications medium, as Columbus city officials surely know because they use it extensively to communicate to the public.

The famous nineteenth-century lawyer and orator Robert Ingersoll indicated that those who deny others the right to share ideas are intellectual thieves and robbers. City officials who stopped citizens from sharing ideas on public access TV were not only that but also, to put it mildly, far less than forthright and trustworthy.