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.

During a lengthy dissection of the candidate's young political career, Hodges and Flowers aired footage of Samuels on the stump where he echoed the same sentiments: "The reason that my family got a leg up on the people in our village in Jamaica is that we were in the Big House." The two went on to consider Samuels's comments, comparing him unfavorably to "House Negroes," a derogatory term that, politically, implies the selling out of the black community for political gain.

Hodges initially apoligized for using the term and gave a history lesson on the implications of it. Then, after a wide-ranging discourse on politics and economics in the city, Hodges offered a "solution." "We as a people, one, in Minneapolis, have to unite," he said, encouraging black people to vote. "And we have to kill the house niggas. We gotta kill them. And that's what we doin' on this show, we tryin' to kill the house nigga. And, we have to get in power." Then later, "Please, if you see a house negro, deal with them appropriately, call them out, do not allow these people to continue to sell us out."

Samuels said he felt threatened, and filed a police complaint against Flowers—even though Flowers did not make the statement—that was eventually dismissed. In October, Flowers filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court for "retaliation for exercise of First Amendment rights," which is still pending.

MTN's Pam Colby: "What we offer is a venue for all citizens to speak freely"
Tony Nelson
MTN's Pam Colby: "What we offer is a venue for all citizens to speak freely"

In March, Samuels then filed his claim with the city's civil rights department, saying "These statements caused my family great fear of potential random violence," before concluding, "I believe I would not have been discriminated against if I were not a Jamaican-American/person of color."

Colby admits that "the speech was ugly." Still, she adds, "Political speech is the most protected under the First Amendment." Colby suspended Flowers for one show before he was allowed back on the air. (Neither Flowers nor Hodges returned phone calls for this story.) According to the minutes of the June 8 MTN meeting, Samuels was requesting $100,000 in compensation.

Samuels, for his part, declines to get into the specifics of the incident, but confirms that he is seeking money in the matter. "Everything has its limits, and sometimes people go beyond their freedoms," he offers. "Sometimes we have to rein in those freedoms. Even public figures deserve to live and have a life."

Colby summarizes the whole incident bluntly: "It was, apparently, the wrong kind of speech by the wrong kind of people."

On June 27, Colby appeared before City Council members at the MTN studios in a meeting about the future of the tiny network. She began her presentation with an emotional appeal, showing footage from the last two decades of MTN programming for the first 20 minutes and then standing for questions.

"I just would ask," Council President Barb Johnson began, "about the development of community standards."

Colby responded that she was going to a national conference that addresses such issues for local public access networks. "I'm pushing up our need to be a First Amendment/free speech forum," Colby added. "But I have promised the mayor to go gather that information and see what I can bring back."

This remark caught several council members, including Ralph Remington (10th Ward), off guard. "I need some light shed on that because I wasn't aware of that conversation that was going on," Remington said. "Community standards and the mayor. What was that all about?"

Colby replied that she and the board of directors met with the mayor and his staff to see "if there are community standards that can be further developed in terms of programming and what are the guidelines." She said that she was looking into programming that "for lack of a better word, might be insulting to viewers.

"But having done this for a long time," she added, "when it comes down to First Amendment-protected speech, it gets pretty tricky for anyone to decide these kinds of matters."

Remington noted that he believed it would be "hard to discern what these standards might be without infringing on the First Amendment." For the next 10 minutes, the council members discussed what, if anything, could be done about the programming on MTN. It became clear that there were two factions on the council: one that wants more authority over what gets broadcast, and one that's disinclined to wade into censorship of any kind.

"Restrictions on free speech aren't the way to do it," Elizabeth Glidden (Eighth Ward) says about the future of programming on MTN, adding "that's not a comment on any one person's personal situation.

"If anything," she adds, "we need more free speech, not less."

Colby says that for now, at least, "there doesn't seem to be a majority on the City Council that wants to get into programming issues." Even so, now that the lawsuits with Time Warner and Comcast have been resolved, negotiations for the next 15 years of cable service between the city and Comcast are in play. And, if the city wants to cut or discontinue MTN's services, now would be the time to consider it. (Comcast and the city have until the end of 2006 to finalize an agreement.) Since some of the MTN budget comes from the city's general fund, the City Council and the mayor essentially hold the purse strings.

"It is my understanding that City Hall would like the community to be more overseen," Colby notes. "Our argument is that we are offering all citizens a chance to speak and we don't want that to be tailored by city officials in any way, shape, or form."

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