Barry, “sectarian” programming should not be excluded from public broadcasting at a time when matters of faith and religion are so much in the news and in the hearts and minds of viewers.
Local public broadcast programming is supposed to be tailored to the unique needs and characteristics of the community. This unfortunate decision serves to further nationalize the control of public broadcasting and undercuts the ability of local stations to provide a full, diverse, and relevant community service. The fact that this decision came after twenty-five years of lax enforcement is telling.
For one thing, this decision was certainly not required by the Establishment Clause. The fact that a small percentage of a public broadcast station’s air time includes programming with religious or sectarian content does not violate the Establishment Clause. Any such content would further the legitimate secular interest of providing public broadcast content that reflects the needs and interests of the local community. The few local stations permitted to keep their longstanding religious programming to serve the needs of their communities have no reason to fear a violation of the Establishment Clause.
In addition, under Arkansas Educational Television Commission v. Forbes, 523 U.S. 666 (1998), public television programming is not typically a forum for private speech and broadcasters have editorial discretion to decide what to air. Importantly, however, where public broadcasters air a political debate or other program that provides a platform for the expression of private speech, free speech principles come into play. A ban on religious or “sectarian” viewpoints in such programming would violate the private speakers’ freedom of speech. This likely explains why the recent decision does not cover discussion programs that air different religious points of view. It is also, ironically, one of the reasons, aside from money, why PBS stations may still air religious programs on their secondary digital multicast TV channels and websites.
Barry, the PBS decision reflects two major problems that reach far beyond this particular decision: the secularization of public life and the federal monopolization of local control. PBS should have followed the old adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
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