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ACLU alleges cable TV censorship

The 1st Amendment lawsuit accuses Los Alamitos of blocking certain programs.

February 08, 2007|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has sued Los Alamitos, saying city officials censored programming on a public-access cable TV channel.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Santa Ana, says City Council members violated the 1st Amendment by canceling reruns of two politically oriented shows on LATV-3, a Time-Warner cable channel in Los Alamitos and Rossmoor.

Los Alamitos officials disputed the allegations.

"The city denies that any censorship has occurred," City Atty. Dean Derleth said Wednesday. "We are perplexed by this lawsuit since the city just introduced an ordinance that creates a citizens commission to oversee and expand free speech and public access on LATV."

The cable station was established in 1982 to air government meetings and programs produced by Los Alamitos and Rossmoor residents.

The roots of the lawsuit date to early 2006, when city officials discovered that the nonprofit cable station hadn't filed tax returns for several years. On Aug. 31, after the IRS levied a $10,000 fine, the City Council fired the station's six-member board of directors. City Council members then appointed themselves to the station board.

In response, one of the fired board members, Alan Katz, who also produces a monthly show for the channel, taped a program blaming city officials for the tax snafu.

Katz's show ran twice in early September, then the station was taken off the air for two days, the lawsuit says. "A blank screen appeared on the channel for that entire weekend."

According to the lawsuit, City Manager Luci Romero Serlet pulled the plug after receiving complaints from viewers of Katz's show. She restored all of the programs after reviewing them and finding nothing inappropriate, the suit said.

More censorship occurred in November, the lawsuit said, this time targeting a series of interviews with City Council candidates. Although the shows aired once without incident, they were replaced by local football games and other broadcasts during their time slot just before the Nov. 7 election, the lawsuit said.

Derek Shaffer, executive director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, said blocking reruns isn't as drastic as never allowing shows to be broadcast in the first place, but it could still be considered a violation of the 1st Amendment.

The case will "come down to the rationale used by the city," he said.

Derleth, the city attorney, said he couldn't comment on specifics except to say "it is unfortunate that the residents of Los Alamitos will have to spend their taxpayer dollars to defend against a meritless lawsuit."

The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction against interference with LATV by city officials.

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