A federal judge has rejected an argument that Kentucky Educational Television violated a Libertarian candidate’s First Amendment rights by denying his request to be included in a broadcast featuring two U.S. Senate candidates.
David Patterson, along with the state and national Libertarian parties, sued for his inclusion in Monday’s Kentucky Tonight show, where incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader, and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky secretary of state, will appear. Patterson is the only other candidate whose name will be on the Nov. 6 ballot.
KET Executive Director Shae Hopkins praised the ruling, announced Saturday. “We believe that all journalists have the right to decide for themselves who to interview and what issues to cover,” she said in a statement.
Patterson cited 24 internal KET emails, obtained under state open-records laws, showing that station staffers changed candidate coverage requirements over several months. He contended that KET kept him off the program due to his political viewpoint.
But U.S. District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove disagreed, writing in his decision that KET was “an institution trying to do the right thing.”
“KET, out of an abundance of caution, established objective criteria which they then used when deciding who to invite” to the Kentucky Tonight forum, Van Tatenhove wrote, noting the station “acted within the bounds of the First Amendment.”
The issue concerned First Amendment rights because KET is licensed to the state. A 1998 Supreme Court ruling, Arkansas Educational Television Commission v. Ralph P. Forbes, established precedent that public broadcasters can bar participants from debates based on levels of public support and other criteria but not a candidate’s views.
Ken Moellman, Kentucky chair of the Libertarian Party, expressed “disgust” with Van Tatenhove’s ruling in a statement. “It is extremely disappointing that the court has said state entities can rewrite the rules in the middle of the game,” Moellman said.
Staff emails showed that KET staffers changed the minimum amount of cash a candidate had to raise to merit coverage. Initially, campaigners had to hold at least $10,000 in contributions; a few months later, that grew to $100,000.
In a statement, Patterson noted that the ruling means candidates “must be rich or have rich friends to even stand a chance. Kentuckians now have their hard-earned tax dollars being used to deprive them of knowing their options” when they walk into the voting booth.
McConnell and Grimes will appear at 8 p.m. Monday on Kentucky Tonight, the station’s weekly public affairs program.