Spurned as underwriter, Klan sues St. Louis station
Originally published in Current, Oct. 20, 1997
By Jacqueline Conciatore
A lawsuit filed last week by a Ku Klux Klan chapter in Missouri accuses St. Louis radio station KWMU of denying the group's First Amendment rights when it refused last month to accept the chapter's underwriting message.
The rejected underwriting credit--which surely would have caused a few fender-benders at drivetime--says that All Things Considered is brought to the audience in part by "The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a white Christian organization, standing up for the rights and values of white Christian America since 1865."
The announcement is modelled after some that currently air on KWMU, such as those for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or the Unitarian Universalist church, says Robert Herman, attorney for the Missouri Ku Klux Klan. KWMU says the Unitarian spot is a national credit from NPR.
As a state-supported entity, KWMU is subject to the First Amendment prohibitions against viewpoint discrimination, which it has violated in this case, Herman contends. The case "has nothing to do with [KWMU] being a radio station, federal funding or NPR, or anything like that," he says. "This is about a state-owned and -operated facility which is opened up to expression of ideas by social advocacy groups such as the Klan." KWMU is licensed to the University of Missouri.
Patricia Bennett, g.m. of KWMU, says FCC regulations clearly allow the station to refuse underwriting it deems inappropriate. "We told them we're licensed by the FCC and the station isn't required by the FCC or federal law to accept underwriting from any and every organization," she said. "We also told them the FCC requires broadcasters to serve the public interest and permits broadcasters to exercise editorial discretion."
But Herman says "all the rules and regulations of the FCC do not abrogate the First Amendment."
Like the Arkansas ETV case now pending in the U.S. Supreme Court (story, page 5), the St. Louis suit threatens to limit the First Amendment free-press rights of broadcasters at state-owned stations in order to protect the First Amendment free-speech rights of citizens.
Herman cites a 1996 decision on the Arkansas case, in which a federal circuit court -- in St. Louis -- ruled that the public TV network had no right to exclude a minor political candidate from a Republican-Democrat Congressional-nominee debate it sponsored and broadcast in 1992. The 1996 decision explicitly treated journalists at the state-owned Arkansas network as government employees, with no authority to suppress the speech of a political candidate. The plaintiff candidate in the Arkansas case, Ralph Forbes, describes himself as a "Christian supremacist," according to reports.
Herman says he's opposing the hypocrisy of the public radio station. "NPR is a very liberal station. ... It probably represents my point of view better than any station I've listened to. But, you either buy the First Amendment or you don't. You can't buy it to only apply to certain people. You have to buy it completely or it doesn't work. If this were the Temple Israel, and they applied to All Things Considered and the station said, 'We don't think Jews are in the public interest,' there'd be outrage."
Herman is also representing the Missouri Klan in its complaint against the state for refusing to allow the Klan to "adopt a highway."
KWMU spokesperson Bob Samples said the university did not wish to address legal issues just yet.
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Related news: Supreme Court hears Arkansas case on rights of state-owned public broadcasters.
Later news: District Court rejects Klan suit, December 1998. Appeal expected.
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