Court of Appeals upholds decision backing KET criteria for debate participation

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A Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld a ruling today in favor of Kentucky Educational Television barring a Libertarian candidate from a political debate in 2014.

David Patterson, then-candidate for U.S. Senate, sued KET in 2014, contending that the state public TV network barred him from an October 2014 candidate forum due to his political views. Patterson lost the suit in district court and appealed. In its judgment, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the earlier ruling.

Patterson’s co-plaintiffs are the Libertarian National Committee, Inc. and the Libertarian Party of Kentucky.

KET had limited participation in the debate to candidates who met criteria that reflect the viability of their bids for office, such as polling that showed support above 10 percent. Patterson’s candidacy didn’t meet the criteria, and he challenged the standards as unconstitutional.

“Patterson never asked KET for its debate criteria,” the appeals court wrote in its judgment. “By August 15 he had not raised $100,000. (In fact, he raised $0 during his campaign.) Nor had he polled above 10%. Pursuant to its criteria, KET did not invite him to the debate.”

Two weeks before the debate, Patterson and the Libertarian Party sued various KET officials and asked the district court to order KET to invite him. The court declined, finding that KET had excluded only “non-serious candidates, not viewpoints,” according to Friday’s judgment.

The district court ruled in favor of KET, prompting Patterson and his co-plaintiffs to appeal.

Public stations must use “reasonable and neutral” criteria to decide which candidates to invite to a debate, the appeals court wrote in its judgment. When a station excludes a candidate based on his “objective lack of support,” the station acts both reasonably and neutrally with respect to viewpoint.

“That is all KET did here,” the judgment states. “Its debate criteria had nothing to do with a candidate’s views; rather, they measured whether voters had shown an objective interest in hearing the candidate, e.g., whether only a marginal number of voters had supported him through donations and in the polls.”

KET did not immediately return a call for comment.

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