AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   September 1991

Hate Group Makes Hay On Public Access   

By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz
H. Glenn Rosenkrantz covers business for the San Ramon Valley Times in California.      

How public should public access television be?

A study released in June by the Anti-Defamation League reveals that use of public access stations is becoming a favored way for extremist groups to spread their messages. The ADL says that nearly 60 programs promoting "racial and religious hatred" aired on public access stations in 24 of the 100 largest TV markets from about October 1990 through March 1991.

The issue looms for Viacom Cablevision in Dublin, California, operators of a public access TV station reaching nearly 70,000 viewers just east of San Francisco. The station will soon air part of a series titled "Race and Reason" produced by Tom Metzger, a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and now head of California-based White Aryan Resistance, a neo-Nazi group.

A jury in Portland, Oregon, found Metzger guilty last fall of inciting followers to murder a black student there. Metzger was ordered to pay $12.5 million in damages.

The station is sitting on the 30-minute videotape until the group fills out forms required for all broadcasts, Viacom officials say. A member of the group submitted the tape in April.

Cable operators' hands are tied when it comes to public access programming. The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 forbids cable companies to exercise any editorial control over programming submitted by the public unless the programming is obscene.

"This tape is not obscene – it's just very objectionable," says Myrt Jones, general manager at Viacom.

Jim Burt, manager of the area's Viacom access channel, would not discuss the contents of Metzger's tape. But others who have seen it, including ADL officials in San Francisco, say the series has a contrived, talking-heads format in which Metzger and other neo-Nazis promote racist ideals and question the reality of the Holocaust.

Burt, citing the tape's incendiary tone, says he offered the ADL counter-programming time on the channel. "The tape could be construed as controversial," he says. "In cases like this we will approach both sides out of a sense of community, not because we have to legally."

The ADL is countering with a 30-minute program that spokesman Scott Ury says doesn't directly attack either the White Aryan Resistance or its program. Instead, Ury says, it celebrates a "multiethnic and multiracial American society."

For his part, Metzger says ADL's programs are just as inflammatory as his are. And he adds that not airing controversial programs, from either side, would be an underutilization of a public access channel's mandate. "Public access is the only medium in the United States that is totally and truly open to people with controversial views that are uncensored," he says.

Despite its subject matter, no one is suggesting Metzger's show be kept off the air. "We understand the First Amendment gives Metzger the right to air his opinions," says the ADL's Ury. "But it also gives us the right to air ours, and to match free speech with free speech."