A breathless nation awaited yesterday’s decision by the PBS board about whether to actually require its member stations to adhere to a basic rule.  OK, maybe it wasn’t exactly the whole country holding its breath, but a handful of people were interested.

The PBS board met to decide whether member stations must actually follow bylaws passed in the mid-l980s. These bylaws stated that those stations receiving PBS programming should not air partisan, commercial or sectarian programming. For 25 years, the board has turned a blind eye to enforcing its restriction on sectarian programming, but after yesterday’s vote, no longer. 

Stations will not be allowed to carry sectarian programming from here on out or they will lose their membership status, the board said. (This means that those stations would not have access to popular shows like “Sesame Street” and “The News Hour.”) That’s a good decision. There’s no reason for PBS stations to show proselytizing or evangelistic programming, particularly with the explosion of television channels available in recent years.  With PBS paid for partly with taxpayer dollars, it’s perfectly defensible constitutionally to forbid religious programming. And with plenty of other broadcast opportunities for religious programming, PBS is by no means required to provide them a forum.

That part of the PBS decision makes sense. What doesn’t make sense
is that PBS has also decided that the six stations that violated those
bylaws by airing religious programming may retain those programs. It’s
as if they are rewarding the stations who have broken the rules. For
example, WLAE
in Louisiana, which broadcasts a daily show sometimes referred to as
“Mass for Shut-Ins,” and a Utah station that broadcasts regular Mormon
religious programming, not only get by unpunished, but now receive a
special exemption from the rule.

Some would-be religious providers could now argue that the PBS board
has shown special preference to some religious groups over others. 
Indeed, they could argue that religious scofflaws who ignored the
rules now continue to benefit from their past actions. 

It is not some act of government censorship to tell “educational”
stations that they have to avoid the promotion of candidates for
office, commercial products, and sectarian viewpoints.  This is not
viewpoint discrimination; it is a flat prohibition on whole categories
of programming.  First Amendment analysts have long understood the
difference between favoring viewpoints ( Catholicism over Methodism)
and carving out whole areas of content which are not appropriate for
government-supported activity.

So now that the board did not adopt a hard and fast “no means no”
rule, I imagine that other groups will in fact start demanding access. 
We’ll see what happens.  However, don’t be too surprised if “Daily
Dervish Dancing” or “Praying With Presbyterians” pops up instead of
“Antiques Roadshow” sometime when you least expect it.

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