Saturday, August 16, 2008

Northwest Arkansas Times questions Telecom board subcommittee's discussion of creating a fairness committee

Setting policy for the operation of the city's government channel is open for discussion. There is no simple answer and public input is needed before the August 28, 2008, meeting of the Telecom board.
Please offer comment under this story and under the draft policy document posted below it.

Merits of Fairness Committee debated
BY MARSHA L. MELNICHAK Northwest Arkansas Times
Posted on Saturday, August 16, 2008
Northwest Arkansas Times questions merits of fairness committee for government channel

Would a fairness committee for Fayetteville’s Government Channel be fair? Is it common sense or a challenge to the First Amendment? The Policies and Procedures subcommittee of the city’s Telecommunications Board is preparing a proposal that would establish a Fairness Committee to “monitor all Government Channel programming for adherence to the policy regarding coverage, priority and procedure.”
Aubrey Shepherd, chairman of the Policies and Procedures subcommittee, sees establishing a Fairness Committee as common sense, a way to protect the channel from misuse by the city administration or the City Council.
City Attorney Kit Williams, on the other hand, said he sees a red flag about a committee making discretionary decisions about what is fair and balanced.
“The trouble is, the courts don’t want us using good judgment in a First Amendment context. They just don’t want that because they are constantly afraid that is going to be a cloak for people favoring one point of view and disfavoring another,” Williams said. The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, to which Williams referred, prohibits abridging free speech.
Fairness Committee
The five volunteer members of the Fairness Committee are to collectively have expertise in law, communication, government regulations, journalism and the public’s right to know, according to the latest draft of the proposal. It states that the committee would monitor forums to see that they are “fair and balanced” and that “informational” programs are free from partisan elements.
Under the proposal, anyone could ask that any program on the channel be challenged as to its fairness and receive a prompt determination. “It’s primarily to distance the government from having full control (of the Government Channel), Shepherd said. The subcommittee’s proposal, of which the fairness committee will be a part, will be brought to the Telecom Board for consideration. Members of that board will then make a recommendation to the City Council. “The purpose is to alleviate the fear that developed that the station would become a public access television statement (station was the intended word) and to have some people who are not directly part of government, in other words, to distance those decisions from government, ” Shepherd said. He said the proposed policy recognizes the need to allow public input into programming decisions.
What’s fair ?
Both Shepherd and Williams said Government Channel programming should not be biased.
“I would rather see the truly partisan stuff go onto our free-speech network and leave the more boring, bland government stuff on the Government Channel,” said Williams.
Shepherd said some of the informational programs now running on the Government Channel could be considered partisan.
“Informational programs stray from city government more than forums have in the past,” Shepherd said.
“Unless (guidelines are) so tightly drawn that you almost don’t need any good judgment on the committee, then it’s probably going to depend upon, to some extent, the discretion of the committee and what they believe is fair and what they don’t believe is fair, and that’s exactly the kind of stuff that courts don’t like,” Williams said.
Shepherd said the Fairness Committee would offer a “reassuring level of distance” between the city administration or the council and the decisions about what programs are aired on the channel.
He said having a committee would take decisions away from judgments made by one person or by city staff who would have to worry about their jobs if their decisions differed from city administrators’ decisions or directions regarding programming.
“That’s potential for abuse that a fairness committee could stop,” Shepherd said.
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