Foiling FCC, court OKs editorials by public broadcasters

The US Supreme Court has significantly lifted one yoke of government regulation from public broadcasters in ruling that noncommercial stations that receive public funds may not be barred from airing editorials.

This close 5-to-4 ruling invalidated a federal law restricting such viewpoints on government-subsidized radio and television stations. Agreeing with the League of Women Voters of California, the Pacifica Foundation, and various news media and civil-rights groups, the high court termed the ban an unconstitutional violation of First Amendment freedom-of-expression guarantees.

This decision is seen as a defeat for the Reagan administration, which had argued in favor of such restrictions. The Federal Communications Commission had held that an editorial ban protects the public from undue political pressures.

In upholding the finding of a federal judge in Los Angeles, however, the court majority rejected the administration's contention that ''individual noncommercial stations are likely to speak so forcefully on particular issues that Congress . . . will be tempted to retaliate . . . by restricting appropriations for all of public broadcasting.''

Associate Justice William J. Brennan said this argument was not sufficiently persuasive to warrant curtailment of individual expression. ''Absent some showing by the government to the contrary, the risk that local editorializing will place all of public broadcasting in jeopardy is not sufficiently pressing to warrant (the law's) broad supression of speech.''

But Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist, in dissent, held that the now-invalidated law was not intended to be a curtailment of freedom of expression. ''I do not believe that anything in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prevents Congress from choosing to spend public monies in that manner.''

This case stemmed from a challenge of a federal statute by the Pacifica Foundation - a nonprofit educational corporation that owns and operates noncommercial stations in major US media markets. The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 had banned all noncommercial stations from airing editorials. But in 1981, Congress narrowed the scope of the law so it applied only to those broadcasters receiving federal money.

The court's ruling Monday may open to review a law that now bars federally supported radio and television stations from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

In other decisions, the high court unanimously decided that motorists stopped by police for suspected traffic violations are not entitled to so-called Miranda warnings - a reading of individual rights afforded to those suspected of a crime. And by a 6-to-3 vote, the court gave judges the power to impose death sentences on convicted murderers even after juries recommended life imprisonment.

Lower courts had split over whether the long-controversial Miranda warnings should apply to drivers stopped by police for routine traffic violations. But the high court determined that motorists pulled over by police are not ''in custody'' - and therefore not entitled to be told about their rights to remain silent and have a lawyer present, or to be told that what they say might be used as evidence against them.

''Questioning incident to an ordinary traffic stop is quite different from station-house interrogation, which frequently is prolonged and in which the detainee often is aware that questioning will continue until he provides his interrogators the answers they seek,'' Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote.

In the ruling on capital-punishment sentencing, Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun said ''there is no constitutional imperative that a jury have the responsibility of deciding whether the death penalty should be imposed.'' Five states already give judges sole responsibility in this matter.

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