Monday, February 25, 2019
SCOTUS Hears Oral Argument in Public Access Television and State Action Case
The Court heard oral arguments in Manhattan Community Access Corporation v. Halleck, presenting the question of when (if ever) the actions of a private nonprofit corporation operating a public access television channel constitute sufficient state action warranting application of the First Amendment. As we discussed in our preview, the doctrinal question revolves around whether it is general constitutional state action doctrine or public forum doctrine under the First Amendment or whether there is a convergence of the two doctrines. The Second Circuit held that there were sufficient allegations of state action and First Amendment violations to prevent dismissal of the complaint.
Recall that the case involves a claim that Manhattan Community Access Corporation, known as Manhattan Neighborhood Network, MNN, suspended the plaintiffs, Halleck and Melendez, from airing programs over the MNN public access channels because of disapproval of the content in violation of the First Amendment, which requires state action.
In oral argument, Michael DeLeeuw, arguing for MNN, began by stating that MNN could not be deemed a state actor under any of the Court's state action tests. On the other hand, in the conclusion to his argument on behalf of the original plaintiffs, Paul Hughes stated that his "argument is limited to the context of public forums and the administration of public forums being state action" and "goes no further than that."
In between, the Justices probed factual questions regarding the composition of the MNN board, MNN's ability to curate content (or whether it must adhere to first-come-first-served), the practice with other public access channels, the agreement scheme between the city and MNN as well as regulations, and searched for analogies in railroads, "private prisons," and schools opening their facilities. Early in the argument, Chief Justice Roberts asked whether facts about MNN's ability to curate content was disputed, with counsel for MNN responding that they were, and Chief Justice Roberts responding that the case was before the Court on the pleadings. At several points, Justice Breyer focused on specific facts, noting that certain facts tended toward or against there being state action or the creation of a public forum.
On the whole, the argument seemed to favor a very particularized analysis. So while the Court could certainly articulate a broad new standard for state action, it seems more likely that the Court's decision will be a narrow one focused on the rather unique circumstances of this public access arrangement.