Berkeley Daily Planet
Friday, July 19, 2002
Front Page

City may regulate public TV

by Kurtis Alexander
Daily Planet Staff

Berkeley leaders are poised to move forward with what may be the most restrictive television-oversight policy in California next week.

The policy would require adult-oriented programming on the city’s two public television stations, Channels 25 and 78, to air only after midnight.

In most cities in the nation the time for showing adult material comes two hours earlier and is voluntary, according to guidelines set by the Federal Communications Commission.

The Freedom to be Human Ball is one of the controversial shows to have aired on public access tv, and could be restricted to early morning hours under a proposal in front of City Council.

The Berkeley plan would establish a committee to provide "oversight and ultimate authority" and ensure that no producer skirts the new rule.

The proposal was first put forth in May, following a small uproar over the "Dr. Susan Block Show," which airs at 10:30 p.m. Fridays, featuring a lingerie-clad sex therapist who has encouraged women to masturbate and explore sensual touching on air.

On May 14, City Council directed that restrictions for such shows be packaged as a formal ordinance. This Tuesday, council members will vote on whether to adopt the new ordinance. The measure requires a second reading and a second vote of support before it is enacted.

Seven of the city’s nine council members have already thrown support behind the ordinance. During May deliberations, Councilmember Kriss Worthington was the only vote against creation of the ordinance, and Councilmember Dona Spring abstained.

"Some people are outraged that when they turn on their public station at 10 o’clock there is something indecent on," said Councilmember Miriam Hawley. Hawley, along with council members Polly Armstrong and Betty Olds, is sponsoring the proposal.

A primary goal of the proposal is to protect children from seeing sexually explicit programs.

While most agree with the need for child oversight, some say it’s not the city’s job.

"As far as I see it, the BCM [Berkeley Community Media] stations are the only television stations that are even remotely uncensored," said Berkeley resident Marty Kent. "It’d be a shame to see City Council censor the last remaining channels."

Kent is joined by a number of First Amendment rights activists. Citing Supreme Court findings, the activists note that public access television stations cannot censor so-called "indecent" programming and are required to air all locally submitted and sponsored materials. The only exception, they say, is "obscene" material which legal experts agree is nearly impossible to classify.

Most television stations voluntarily adhere to a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. window for airing "indecent" programming, called a "safe harbor."

Embracing the First Amendment argument is Berkeley attorney James Chanin. Chanin, a civil rights advocate, joined the ACLU in successfully suing the city in 1992 over a controversial panhandling ordinance. Chanin says the city is inviting similar lawsuits if it adopts the television restrictions before them now.

"There is no legitimate reason why the city of Berkeley should adopt this unprecedented attempt to regulate the free speech rights of its citizens," Chanin said in a written statement to council. "By doing so, the city will be restricting the rights of its adult citizens to produce and access legal material."

City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque disagreed.

"The city may, consistent with the First Amendment, impose time-segregation rules for indecent programming on BTV for the purposes of protecting children from lewd programming," Albuquerque said in a written statement to council members.

Brian Scott, Berkeley Community Media’s executive director, says that the television station cannot afford to take on the legal risk of time-segregation rules, but it respects the city’s efforts.

If the ordinance passes, a city-sponsored commission will address viewer complaints and direct BCM on how to take action, Scott speculated.

Opposition to the city’s ordinance had been organized and at least one protest had been scheduled – until last week.

A planned anti-censorship demonstration for Berkeley’s Ashkenaz theater was canceled when theater officials found out that there was going to be nudity during one of the performances, according to Frank Moore, a local television producer.

"They didn’t seem to get the irony," Moore said.

Ashkenaz staff could not be reached for comment.

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