Giving access to controversy

LOCAL-access cable channels are one of the rare ways the ``little guy'' can have his say on television. These channels, which cable operators are required to provide if a community asks for one, bring city council meetings, high school football games, barbershop quartets, and other grass-roots events and talents to the tube. Alas, they can also bring the extremist fringe into the living room. That's what almost happened in Kansas City when the Ku Klux Klan tried to air a racist program, ``Race and Reason,'' on the city's local-access channel.

The City Council voted to forgo its local-access capability rather than allow the program to run. The channel reverted to control by the cable company, and was thus released from the provisions of the federal Cable Act of 1984, which says local-access programming has to be free of editorial control by the cable operator.

The law envisioned a televised forum open to any type of opinion, entertainment, or event, so long as it was not ``obscene or otherwise unprotected by the Constitution.'' Predictably, the Klansmen who want to air ``Race and Reason'' feel their First Amendment rights are being trampled by the Kansas City officials, and the American Civil Liberties Union will champion their position in court.

The council members, understandably, were concerned that ``Race and Reason'' would provoke violence. Many community leaders felt such programming has no legitimate place on the air, since it's intrinsically harmful and inflammatory. The other side argues that ideas and opinions, as disgusting as they may be to some people, shouldn't be censored by governmental action - that such a precedent strikes at the heart of democracy.

Kansas City isn't the first place to face this controversy. The local-access channel in Pocatello, Idaho, aired the Klan program a couple of years ago, and followed the show with a lengthy call-in session that allowed people to counter the Klan's views. In Vancouver, Wash., ``Race and Reason'' was followed by a tape of a local forum on racism. This is called ``counter-programming,'' and it is one effective response to the threat posed by hate programming like the Klan's. But unfortunately, extremists are always more ready to put forth their views than moderates are to counter them.

The city fathers in Kansas City have chosen a different response, one that may avert violence but also deprives people of a valuable communications resource.

Some 1,400 local access channels operate across the United States. In some communities they are vigorously used. In many, they lie fallow. The Klan's desire to use these channels for nefarious purposes should waken the rest of us to the possibilities of using them for programming that can knit communities together, rather than divide them.

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