Council member’s complaint against city’s public access network sparks free speech debate


MInneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels has filed a formal complaint against the city’s public access cable network and a programmer there who he alleges has defamed him. The move has sparked a heated debate in City Hall around the value of the First Amendment and free speech. Tuesday, it spilled over into the Minneapolis Television Network’s (MTN) annual meeting.

Samuels’ complaint was filed with the city’s Civil Rights Department and involves a program hosted by community activist Spike Moss, according to a source familiar with the case. The complaint seeks monetary damages of $100,000.

The issue, which has been the subject of a sometimes contentious e-mail debate among council members and Mayor R. T. Rybak, surfaced again Tuesday when council president Barbara Johnson asked MTN executive director Pam Colby why the network hasn’t developed so-called “community standards” to govern its programming.

Colby replied that such standards would be “pushing up against our need to be a First Amendment and free speech forum.”

She noted that she and MTN board member Robert Vose, an attorney, had met with Rybak and Johnson on this issue since Samuels filed the complaint, but suggested that developing any sort of standards that would limit free speech would be “pretty tricky.”

The organization, she said, does have policies that can help mitigate the effects of programming that may insult viewers. For instance, MTN does not have to air the offensive program more than once and it can schedule shows that may have offensive content to air only after 10 p.m. And anyone who feels they’ve been cast in an unkind light by a programmer is invited to submit a response, she added. Beyond those efforts, however, there is little recourse for those who feel they’ve been wronged.

“A lot of decisions actually have to be decided in the courts,” she said.

MTN does not hold the copyrights to any of the programming produced by its volunteer producers, Colby said, so the people who make the shows could be held responsible.

But Council Member Lisa Goodman wondered whether MTN—and, by extension, the city—also could be held liable in a defamation lawsuit. How does the organization protect itself from that possibility?

“We’d help the defamed person defend themselves” on the air, Colby said.

“That’s our method of seeking redress?” asked Goodman, incredulously.

“We have to encourage more speech,” Colby replied. “We don’t want to screen everybody coming on the shows.”

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden suggested that the council take up the issue more formally in the future, but added that she would oppose any policies that would hinder free speech. “We need to be very cautious about how we press against these First Amendment rights,” she said.

In an interview, Samuels, who was conspicuously silent during the meeting, confirmed that he had filed the complaint and reported that he had met with MTN representatives in mediation about three weeks ago. He said it’s up to MTN to return with a response to his proposed remedy. “If they have some room to move, we will be moving,” he said.

Asked whether he was contemplating a lawsuit, he said he’d not made that decision.

As he had in an earlier City Council debate, Samuels reaffirmed his belief that Democratic principles do not necessarily include unbridled speech. “Democracy is not the ultimate virtue,” he said, noting that hateful speech in the name of democracy can actually threaten democratic institutions.

Acknowledging that his may not be the majority opinion on the council, Samuels called the give-and-take around the issue “a good conversation.” But he insisted that he will continue to challenge his colleagues—and MTN—to face up to the fact that the First Amendment is not always sacred. “If things go unchallenged, we can denigrate our culture,” he said.

Some challenges apparently are already underway. MTN producer Al Flowers, who with Booker Hodges sparked a huge controversy last year with their on-air criticism of Samuels during his campaign against Ward 5 Council Member Natalie Johnson Lee, said that Samuels’ complaint had already had a chilling effect on his participation at MTN. He said he’s been dropped as an occasional host of the city-sponsored Monday Night Live show.