You know who i like? Rod Bryan. I bet I agree with him on 90% of the issues he endorses. That doesn’t mean I have to vote for him.. You know who else I like? Jim Lendall. Like Rod, Lendall is a great guy. Lendall was even a state representative for eight years. I’m not voting for him either. Who remembers Ralph Forbes? As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Forbes v. AETN, “Forbes was a perennial candidate who had sought, without success, a number of elected offices in Arkansas.” Forbes, like Warren Carpenter before him, and like Bryan and Lendall now, ran his campaigns on little or no money, staff, or mainstream support. Like Bryan, Forbes badly wanted some free air time as could be provided by a televised debate. In 1992, he sued to be allowed to participate claiming that a tax-payer funded television station, AETN, could not keep out candidates just because they were not in one of the two major parties. Forbes had accumulated 6,000 signatures in support of hid candidacy.
The U.S. Supreme Court specifically held that AETN’s decision to exclude Ralph Forbes from the televised debate did not violate the 1st amendment. They court wrote that the televised debate was not a public forum – that is, it was not open to just anyone who wished to speak on any topic. The Court majority agreed that Forbes was not being excluded from the debate because of his political views. Instead, he was being excluded because he had not generated “appreciable public support.” As long as the AETN’s exclusion of Forbes was reasonable and viewpoint neutral, it did not violate the 1st amendment. The Court’s decision was more based on journalistic discretion than on whether a public television network had to treat all candidates equally. The Court wrote
Much like a university selecting a commencement speaker, a public institution selecting speakers for a lecture series, or a public school prescribing its curriculum, a broadcaster by its nature will facilitate the expression of some viewpoints instead of others. Were the judiciary to require, and so to define and approve, pre-established criteria for access, it would risk implicating the courts in judgments that should be left to the exercise of journalistic discretion.
There are only four candidates in the Governor’s race. What if there were ten? Twenty? Should AETN have to host a debate with twenty candidates, only two of whom have greater than 1% name recognition and support? Few journalists would sponsor or participate in such a debate Does anyone think AETN or any other station should or would host a debate with twenty or even ten candidates? The Court found “Were it faced with the prospect of cacophony, on the one hand, and First Amendment liability, on the other, a public television broadcaster might choose not to air candidates’ views at all.” Should write-in candidates be allowed to debate too? No one is suggesting that AETN must host a debate. I agree if there were 10 or 15 candidates, they would host a debate at all..
Of course in this race there are not ten, but only four. Regardless, the principal still applies – the major candidates decided they did not want to debate if faced with being given the same forum as the most minor candidates. The choice then for the station is either no debate or a debate that only includes the major candidates. I agree with the Supreme Court that as long as candidates are not excluded by a taxpayer subsidized television station for having unpopular views, there is no 1st amendment violation for keeping out the minor candidates. This is not to say that all the candidates could not be given some free forum – such as a post-debate response speech or an hour long interview. Again, journalistic freedom is at stake and even a public television station should have the freedom of the press to make such decisions without court interference.
I’m curious what Bryan and Lendall would prefer – a debate between just Hutchinson and Beebe, or no debate at all? That is the real issue in this controversy. Between now and the last debate, I’ll use my journalistic discretion and give both candidates an opportunity to answer that question.
To be fair to Bryan, he doesn’t take a legalistic stand in support of his request to be allowed to participate in the debates. Instead, he lambastes both the major candidates for refusing to debate him. Recently someone offered to debate George Bush. He said,
I suggest we talk with Mr Bush, the president of the United States, in a live television debate about world issues and ways out of these standoffs. We would voice our opinions and they would too. The debate should be uncensored, above all for the American public.
These remarks are by the Iranian President Ahmadinejad. I’m not comparing Bryan to the president of Iran, but I am saying that Beebe, Hutchinson, and George Bush may have legitimate and practical reasons for ducking their respective debate challengers.