County officials are looking to avoid violating free speech as they consider the future of the local community access cable channel.
The channel’s current operating policies and procedures were considered by the Scotland County Board of Commissioners Policy Committee Tuesday afternoon.
An advisory board charged with overseeing the operations of the channel has been inactive for a number of years and many of the policies currently governing the channel are outdated, according to county officials.
The channel is paid for mostly by franchise fees charged to Time Warner Cable customers. Those fees are passed through both the Scotland County and Laurinburg governments to fund the channel.
Sean Moore, the St. Andrews University instructor responsible for managing the channel, sought advice from the county following a request from a local resident interested in broadcasting an “issues-based” program on the channel last year. Moore was uncertain of whether the program should be permitted to air.
Upon learning of Moore’s concern, the county commissioners decided to revise the channel’s current operating policy and to consider reviving the stagnant advisory board.
“He wasn’t sure how to handle that request,” said County Clerk Ann Kurtzman. “The (current channel policy) does not really address programming on the channel.”
In the first of what are expected to be several meetings of the policy committee held to develop a new community access channel operating procedure the committee reviewed the channel’s current organizing document.
Nearly all of the channel’s current programming consists of airings of local governmental meetings or church gatherings, Kurtzman said.
According to Scotland County Schools spokesman Andy Cagle, who served on the channel’s advisory board, school board meetings are filmed and edited for broadcast by students at the high school. All other meetings of local government broadcast by the channel are filmed by Moore.
Cagle said that in creating content standards for what may be broadcast on the channel, the city and the county should be mindful of the liability that could come along with restricting free speech.
“If we decide that the channel should be a public forum and we start limiting the programming based on content … then that could constitute a prior restraint on free speech,” Cagle said.
One option, Cagle said, would be to turn the channel into a “government access” outlet, meaning that citizen-produced programming like church service broadcasts would be cut from the channel.
The channel’s current policy forbids obscenity and states that programming must be judged based on its literacy, artistic, political and scientific value to the community.
“From a legal standpoint it is almost better to have no restrictions,” Cagle said.
In revamping the advisory board, the county may consider adding an appeal panel as a means of recourse for those who have had content rejected from the channel.
“We could include it in the (advisory board’s) duties, for them to serve as a review panel,” committee chairperson Carol McCall said.
If reformed, the advisory board will likely be smaller than the current 11 member format. The board had difficulty reaching a quorum during past meetings, according to Cagle.
The policy committee agreed to move forward with further defining the nature of the channel at their next meeting some time in March. In the meantime, Kurtzman said that she will research how other community access channels are operated throughout the state.
“This is going to take several meetings for us to work out,” McCall said.