BOSTON - A federal court has ruled that nonprofessional news gatherers have the same rights as professionals, supporting a community gadfly who claimed she was muzzled by a public access cable company.
It is the first ruling of its kind, said the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented plaintiff Patricia Demarest in her fight with Athol/Orange Community Television.
"It will open so many more doors for common citizens to use public access as a public forum and a place to speak their minds," said Demarest, co-producer of the program "Think Tank 2000."
"It's a fight for any common citizen to bring forth ideas and generate healthy communities."
Demarest used the program to accuse local officials in the central Massachusetts town of Athol of conflicts of interest.
But after she broadcast the grilling she gave one official, she was suspended by the cable company, whose board is appointed by the city. The company also changed its rules to ban controversial programming, requiring broadcasters to get written permission from anyone they portrayed.
Last week, however, U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor in Springfield ruled that such shows constitute a "public forum" and have First Amendment protection.
AOTV lawyer Peter Epstein said he had not read the verdict and could not comment.
The cable company said after several controversial broadcasts in 2000 that the regulation requiring written consent was necessary to prevent unfair coverage.
The ACLU argued that would prevent coverage of any public official.
Cable access provides the same opportunity to share ideas as printed leaflets and soap boxes did in the past, said Bill Newman, director of the western Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU.
"Citizen producers of shows are entitled to the same First Amendment protections as producers of shows for large media outlets," Newman said.
The judge essentially agreed, writing that the requirement "made news makers news editors. By refusing to sign a release form, Athol's news makers could ensure that their images did not appear on AOTV."
Ponsor also struck down an AOTV rule that prohibits broadcasters from showing illegal acts. Such a requirement, he said, would have prevented the broadcast of "some of the most important moments in American history," including footage of the Bloody Sunday attack on civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala.
Copyright 2002 Associated Press