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.

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"

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.

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.

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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