Monday, April 12, 2010

If One, Then All

That is one of the fundamental points of all rights guaranteed in the Constitution and of a Responsible Community. If you allow an individual to use public property to express a political view point, then you must allow others that meet the same standards. But, those standards can’t be based on content.

Independence Township is learning that lesson. Depending on their decision, the township may find themselves programming a wide range of political opinions if they allow a group to use the township’s public access channel to broadcast a video asking for the recall of the supervisor. The township attorney has opined that they should allow the group on the channel for fear that there might be a court fight that would cost too much money. The attorney did frame the issue in freedom of speech terms.

We have a guarantee of the freedom of speech. The government can’t control the content of the speech if it is political in nature, short of being libelous. Tied closely to that freedom is the right of assembly, both being part of the first amendment. Assembly must be allowed on public property and any limitations must meet strict standards.

In this digital age, political assembly can be defined as gathering in public cyberspace. An access channel that the government operates would be open to anyone to use because it is public space. Any rules for usage of the channel for political speech has to be applied to any individual or group without regard to the content of the speech.

If Independence Township, for fear of fighting a costly court battle, chooses to allow the recall group on the access channel, it will open itself to even more costly fights. Every group with any political agenda will line up to use the channel and the township will not be able to stop them.

But, if Independence Township chooses to not allow any political speech, they will perhaps fight one court battle but will win in the long run. They will be able to program the channel in a manner that is best for the township.

This would not be necessarily be a violation of freedom of speech and assembly. There are plenty of video outlets on the web that would provide them, essentially, with the same access to the residents of Independence. This is especially true because a resident must have cable to have access to the township channel in the first place.

This is not like using the local park or township property for speech and assembly. The township can’t just stop all political activity at the local park because there would be no alternative. A group’s assembly at the park, say in Clarkston, will not have the same impact as a park in the township because township residents may not have the same access to that park. But, other alternatives on the web would give the residents the same access as the township channel.

Be careful Independence Township that you don’t open up the channel to an endless stream of political speech that may have nothing to do with the original intent of the channel, to keep the public informed about community events.

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