When Is Free Speech Too Free?

Minneapolis has settled its lawsuits with Time Warner Cable. But the city may still be out to gut local cable-access programming.

Two weeks ago, when the city of Minneapolis agreed to settle no fewer than four suits and counter-suits with Time Warner Cable—and Comcast, which is in the process of taking over TWC's operations locally—there was a shrug of relief around City Hall. Though the preliminary agreement calls for Minneapolis to receive only $3.5 million instead of the $118 million it had originally sought, it felt as if the city had finally concluded a legal battle it could not win.

The four-year-old dispute revolved mainly around legalistic issues like franchise fees and system capacity, but its origins date all the way back to 1979, when the city entered into a 25-year agreement with an outfit called Northern Cablevision of Minneapolis. Several successors later, Time Warner became the city's cable provider. In 1999, Time Warner went digital—offering more channels and, eventually, cable-modem internet-access services.

Under the original agreement, the cable provider was supposed to pay a franchise fee of 5 percent of its revenue to the city. Additionally, it was supposed to provide 25 percent of its capacity to the city for local programming. The city argued that this meant it was entitled to revenues from internet hookups and the newer digital tier of channels; Time Warner refused on both counts. Since the original 1979 agreement expired in 2004, there has been no contract between the city and the cable provider.

Nearly forgotten in all the drawn-out machinations over money is the fate of the Minneapolis Television Network (MTN), which runs public-access channels 16, 17, and 75 in Minneapolis. MTN is funded in part by franchise fees, and its existence depends on how much cable capacity is granted to the city. In the past two years, constant squabbling over those two issues has cast doubt on MTN's future.

Even before the contract expired, MTN was feeling the heat from City Hall: City staffers and Mayor R.T. Rybak had publicly talked about folding MTN into the city's communications department. (It currently operates as a nonprofit with no programming oversight from elected officials.) And City Council member Don Samuels (Fifth Ward) further complicated MTN's prospects when he filed a complaint against the network with the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights for broadcasting "illegal racist hate speech" about him a year ago. Samuels is seeking $100,000 in compensation, a price tag that would surely break the back of the low-budget operation.

"This has all been hard," says MTN executive director Pam Colby, noting that the network's budget is contingent upon being in the council's good graces. "The city's move to go to court made things more complicated for us. And there's certainly a movement at City Hall for more oversight. The city has the power to shut us down. But what we have here are First Amendment issues. What we offer is a venue for all citizens to speak freely."

 

Colby is an MTN old-timer. She was there at the beginning, in 1983, when the mayor and City Council set up the operation to comply with a state law requiring cities and their cable franchise to provide community programming. It was established as a nonprofit to be governed by nine board members appointed by the Minneapolis City Council and the mayor, in addition to ex officio members representing Minneapolis Public Schools, the city, and the cable company. The purpose since day one has been "to provide access to television broadcast equipment and to cable television channels for the diverse community," according to MTN's mission statement.

"Twenty-two years ago, the notion was, 'Who's going to use this?'" Colby recalls. "Just the League of Women Voters? Politicians? Will African Americans use it? Will immigrants?"

The answer turned out to be "all of the above." These days MTN features programs in Somali, Ethiopian, and Vietnamese. Topically, the programming runs from religion to the arts to police/community affairs, and the stations have even generated some cult hits like Viva and Jerry, a husband-and-wife team who play country music videos.

But the uneven, freewheeling, grassroots character of the programming has made city leaders queasy from time to time. In April 2004, Gail Plewacki, the city's communications director, told the City Council she wanted to move MTN's studios from St. Anthony Main to City Hall. Plewacki said then and says now that the notion was to save money. (MTN's budget for 2006 is $697,000, roughly half coming from the city's general fund and half coming from Time Warner.) But many at the time wondered if it wasn't to curtail some of the speech being broadcast on the three channels. (The city directly controls two additional channels that are used to broadcast city meetings and hearings involving the City Council, School Board, Park Board, and so forth.)

"Do we really want City Hall," one board member asked at the time, "to decide what gets out to the community?" ("Put Your Best Face Forward," CP 06/09/04.) Plewacki says now that the plan was scrapped because it wasn't feasible financially or logistically. "It scared people," she says, "And I felt bad, because it was not our intent."

But the issue of controlling expression on MTN arose again in 2005, after a flare-up over one episode of a show called Real State of the City. The host and producer, Al Flowers, invited local commentator and sometime-political-candidate Booker Hodges on as a guest. The two men, who are both African American, began responding at length to comments made in the local newspaper Insight by Don Samuels, who at the time was running for the Fifth Ward council seat against Natalie Johnson Lee. In that article, Samuels—himself an immigrant from Jamaica—referred favorably to his family's heritage as house slaves, seeming to imply that it left people like him better-suited to deal with the white political establishment than black people descended from the more numerous ranks of field slaves.

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