SAN JOSE — A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge raised concerns Wednesday that students may be unlawfully coerced into watching commercial advertising on the Channel One television news program being shown in some California schools.
Considering a widely watched test case brought by state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig and the state PTA against a local district that is using the program, Judge Jeremy Fogel said the mere presence of TV commercials is not illegal. However, he said the ads may have a disproportionate impact in the classroom--and thus be "more toxic or poisonous" than commercials that students see at home.
The judge added that he may appoint a monitor to study the effects of the show. "The issue is whether commercials are more than just an incidental presence," he said.
Fogel said he had reached no conclusions but would rule soon.
Channel One, a daily 12-minute current-events show that includes two minutes of ads, is being seen in nearly 12,000 public and private schools in 45 states. In California, 68 public schools and 77 private schools subscribe to the show. A ruling by Fogel barring the program locally could lead to a statewide legal ban, state education officials say.
The program, produced by Knoxville-based Whittle Communications, provides more than $600,000 a day in revenue from four 30-second commercials that finance the shows. The programs include ads for soft drinks, movies, candy, clothing and other products. No ads for alcohol, tobacco and contraceptives are allowed.
The program is transmitted to schools by satellite before dawn and taped on videocassette recorders.
In return for airing at least 90% of the Channel One shows, subscribers receive free satellite dishes, VCRs and television sets that also may be used for other educational purposes.
Lawyers for Honig and the PTA, seeking a permanent injunction against the show, argued Wednesday that state law bars such commercial-laced programs from the classroom. Students are effectively coerced into watching the programs, violating their rights, the attorneys said. Growing budget problems did not justify the "sale" of school time, they contended.
"Public education is supposed to be free, without having to sell something for it," said Michael Hersher, a lawyer for the state Department of Education. "The integrity of the public school system is at stake."
Attorneys for Whittle Communications and the East Side Union High School District countered that local officials are within their lawful discretion in subscribing to Channel One. They stressed that hard-pressed schools could make welcome use of the valuable equipment they receive. There is no coercion--direct or implied--because students are free to leave the classroom and teachers can reject the program, the lawyers said.
Los Angeles attorney John E. McDermott, representing Whittle, said there is widespread acceptance of the show as an effective and unbiased way to acquaint students with current events. "There is an overwhelming consensus among parents and schools that this is what they want," said McDermott.
Fogel said that although the district maintained that viewing the program is voluntary, there still may be "inherent pressure" on students to watch. He also said he is "very troubled" by the possibility that commercials in the classroom would have a disproportionate influence. At school, he said, the ads "might be more toxic or poisonous than they would be if seen while sitting at home."