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First Amendment Library:
I. Michael Greenberger


Section 10 of the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, 47 U.S.C. _ 532, regulates indecent programming on local access cable television channels. Indecent speech is speech that, while not obscene, describes or depicts sexual or excretory activities or organs in an offensive manner. Local access channels are those channels set aside by the cable operator for use by persons not affiliated with the operator. The operator is prohibited from exercising any editorial control over these channels. Local access channels usually either are leased or are the "public, educational, or governmental" channels that a local government requires the operator to set aside as partial consideration for the operator's right to install cables under city streets and to otherwise use public right of ways. Section 10(a) of the Act permits cable operators to refuse to carry indecent speech on leased local access channels. Section 10(b) of the Act directs the Federal Communications Commission to adopt rules requiring operators who choose to carry indecent programming on local access channels to place the programs on a separate channel and to block the channel until the subscriber, in writing, requests unblocking. Section 10(c) permits cable operators to refuse to carry indecent speech on public, educational, or governmental channels. A combination of groups that produce and watch local access programming challenged the Act and the FCC regulations implementing it on First Amendment grounds. The groups argued that the Act and regulations unconstitutionally censored indecent speech. A panel of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals agreed with this argument and struck down the Act. On rehearing, however, the full court reversed and held that the Act was constitutional because it did not require censorship of indecent speech and because the blocking provisions were the least restrictive means of furthering the government's interest in shielding children from indecent programming. When, as in this case, a governmental restriction of speech is based upon the content of that speech, the restriction can be upheld only if it constitutes the least restrictive means of advancing a compelling governmental interest. Sable Communications of Cal. v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115 (1989). In the broadcasting context, the least restrictive means analysis often involves determining whether the broadcasts are available to children, whether the type of broadcasting is pervasively present in society, whether the indecent material can "confront" the audience with little or no warning, and whether adults have other means to receive similar speech. See, e.g., FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978).