Idaho’s state legislature has imposed extraordinary restrictions on the state public TV network, in delayed reaction to its broadcast last September of the gay-friendly documentary “It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School.”
The state House of Representatives passed the restrictions March 27  by a vote of 50-16, as part of an appropriations bill that gives $2 million for DTV instead of the $3.9 million requested by the network. And the same legislation passed the state Senate April 4.
It will order the State Board of Education, licensee of the network, to monitor “programs expected to be of a controversial nature,” and to reject any program that “promotes, supports or encourages the violation of Idaho criminal statutes.” In a state where sodomy is illegal, the bill could be interpreted as forbidding Idaho Public TV to rebroadcast “It’s Elementary,” a program about classroom treatment of the subject of homosexuality.
House Appropriations Chairman Bob Geddes Sr. defended the state’s right to impose conditions on public TV. “If we’re going to get the government out of public television, we better get the funding out of public television, too,” he said. The state picks up about 30 percent of IPTV’s budget.
Conservative critics of IPTV were not only outraged by “It’s Elementary,” but have complained about other programs. Rep. Thomas Loerscher was offended by the recent dramatization of the adulterous Madame Bovary and objected to past documentaries that “brutally attacked” agriculture by questioning practices of grazing on public lands, according to the Idaho Falls Post Register. Sen. Stan Hawkins complained about nudity in the famous 1865 painting “Olympia,” featured in the PBS series Culture Shock.
Idaho is a very conservative state with one of the most Republican legislatures in the country. All but four of the 35 state senators are G.O.P., and 58 of the 70 House members.
But the state’s media establishment defended IPTV. The Idaho State Broadcasters Association, the Idaho Press Club, the Idaho Newspaper Association and the Idaho Allied Dailies said the monitoring mandate is “patently unconstitutional.” The bill “imposes a prior restraint … by creating a legislative censor” for controversial programs, the press groups said. The term “controversial program” itself is “unconstitutionally vague.”
The problem with legislation that requires “monitoring” controversial programming is that “it carries with it the threat of doing something about it,” says Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis, v.p. of America’s Public Television Stations. Along those lines, she recalled, a federal circuit court in 1978 struck down a Nixon Administration rule that required broadcasters to keep records on programming about issues of public importance.
Opponents ridiculed the provision about programs that encourage law-breaking. “With this language, I’m not sure they could air mysteries in which a murder is committed,” said Rep. Kenneth Robison to a reporter. “The language is so encompassing, it’s far beyond reasonable.”
Despite lobbying by the Idaho Christian Coalition and the Idaho Family Forum, IPTV aired “It’s Elementary” Sept. 7, as it had announced in May. The program aired in June on many public TV stations in other states. “We reviewed the program and we decided in the best interests of the viewing public to let them make the choice [of whether to view the program],” said General Manager Peter Morrill. Less than two weeks before the air date, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne recommended that the program be aired at 11 p.m. rather than 10 p.m. and Morrill concurred. IPTV scheduled two nights later an hour-long follow-up talk show on the subject of the documentary.
Before the recent House votes, Idaho PTV had won two victories in the House Education Committee. Advocates for the network headed off a proposal to study privatization of the network. On March 6, the committee voted 10-7 against the study. Rep. Jeff Alltus, a Republican from Hayden, had proposed the privatization study at the request of the Christian Coalition, according to press reports. “I think they could do it commercially just like anyone else and compete in the same marketplace,” he was quoted as saying.
In February the same House Education Committee had backed full funding for Idaho PTV’s DTV capital request. All 22 witnesses at a hearing Feb. 7 spoke up for the DTV appropriation.
Copyright 2000 Current