Court Supports Rights Of ‘Nonprofessional’ Journalists

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(AP) A federal court has ruled that nonprofessional news gatherers have the same rights as professionals, supporting a community gadfly who claimed she was muzzled by a public access cable company.

It is the first ruling of its kind, said the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented plaintiff Patricia Demarest in her fight with Athol/Orange Community Television.

“It will open so many more doors for common citizens to use public access as a public forum and a place to speak their minds,” said Demarest, co-producer of the program “Think Tank 2000.”

“It’s a fight for any common citizen to bring forth ideas and generate healthy communities,” she said. Demarest used the program to accuse local officials in the central Massachusetts town of Athol of conflicts of interest. But after she broadcast the grilling she gave one official, she was suspended by the cable company, whose board is appointed by the city. The company also changed its rules to ban controversial programming, requiring broadcasters to get written permission from anyone they portrayed.

Last week, however, U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor in Springfield ruled that such shows constitute a “public forum” and have First Amendment protection. Ponsor also struck down an AOTV rule that prohibits broadcasters from showing illegal acts. Such a requirement, he said, would have prevented the broadcast of “some of the most important moments in American history,” including footage of the Bloody Sunday attack on civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala.

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