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For the week of July 4 through July 11, 2000

Idaho public television facing embarrassing censorship battle

Commentary by JACK VALKENBURGH


I don't know state Sen. Hal Bunderson of Meridian.

But I really don't believe the suggestion in his June 24 column in the Idaho Statesman— "IPTV needs Ed Board's oversight"—that there are people who want the Idaho public television "station manager [to be] allowed to be a programming czar…" (my emphasis).

Such ridiculous statements are exactly what the senator himself criticized in his column's prior paragraph when he said that "attempts to inflame public opinion in support of a particular point of view... [do] little to encourage intelligent and rational debate."

The truth is that we opponents of political meddling in public television programming simply do not want programs censored that have met principles and standards that were painstakingly adopted and have been used for nearly three decades.

These standards, known as the "Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Adopted Program Policies" are not only the policy of Idaho Public Television (IPTV), but also, my research indicates, of all, or nearly all, 350 public broadcasting stations operating in all 50 states.

The PBS principles speak to editorial integrity, program quality, program diversity and local station autonomy. Editorial standards speak to fairness, accuracy, objectivity, balance, courage and controversy, exploration of significant topics and a number of other important issues.

The interest in limiting controversial IPTV programming flies in the race of current program policies that state "the surest road to intellectual stagnation and social isolation is to stifle the expression of uncommon ideas..."

Amen to that!

Senator Bunderson says he simply wants education board oversight of IPTV. But the board already has that oversight. The board is IPTV's parent agency. Anytime the general manager acts outside the programming standards he can be fired.

The truth is, this whole fuss is because many legislators couldn't abide Idaho Public Television broadcasting "It's Elementary" and "Our House," two programs that depict the humanity of lesbians and gay men. Both shows met PBS and IPTV standards and were aired widely across the nation.

The problem? Apparently, some Idaho legislators can't accept tax-supported programs that depict gay people as worthy individuals.

So now the State Board of Education is grappling with two proposals to "implement" the legislative intent language that accompanied the state's latest IPTV appropriation.

From a free speech perspective, both proposals are ghastly.

One proposal creates an IPTV "Citizens Programming Advisory Board" that isn't even honestly named, for it is not "advisory." Rather, the proposal empowers this "advisory" board to censor any program that comes before it, apparently by majority vote.

And what will be the qualifications of the advisory board members? Who knows—the proposal only states that one member will come from each of six geographic regions. The proposal makes no mention of the need to commit to, or even agree with, the principles and standards that make public television what it is.

The other proposal would rewrite the governing policies and procedures of IPTV, insisting throughout that the general manager is to assure "compliance" with the intent of the Idaho legislature.

But how can the general manager know that he is complying? Only one way seems safe—censor any program that treats gays with respect, no matter how well the program satisfies public broadcasting standards.

The proposal to rewrite IPTV's governing policies and procedures also mandates the airing of disclaimers (called "Viewer Discretion and Advisory Statements") that say, in essence, "what you see is not meant to promote illegal behavior."

How embarrassing! But while silly and unnecessary, the disclaimer requirement may be the least offensive of all the proposals from a free speech perspective.

So now, as Idaho struggles to build a positive image, we embarrass ourselves by becoming the first state whose legislature reacts to gay-themed programs by overriding standards for public broadcasting that have been in effect across the nation since 1971.

In the coming weeks, we will be lucky if we escape national media attention and ridicule.

Worse, we may have brought it on ourselves.

You can help—call the State Board of Education and tell them "don’t mess with IPTV programming standards!"


Jack Valkenburgh is an attorney and executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho

 

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