Halleck and Melendez, film producers, sued MNN in federal district court for the alleged violation of First Amendment free-speech rights when MNN restricted their access to the public access channels. MNN moved to dismiss the respondent’s claim on the ground that MNN is not a state actor and thus not subject to First Amendment restrictions on its editorial discretion.
A private actor may qualify as a state actor when it exercises “powers traditionally exclusively reserved to the State.”
The state law of New York requires cable operators in the State to set aside channels on their cable systems for public access and that use of the public access channels be free of charge and first-come, first-served. The state law dictates that the cable operator operates the public access channels unless local governments choose to operate the channels themselves or designate a private entity to operate. New York City has designated a private corporation named Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) to operate Time Warner’s public access channels in Manhattan. Halleck and Melendez produced a film and submitted it to MNN for airing on MNN’s public access channels. MNN, however, suspended the producers’ from using the public access channels. Halleck sued.
Is operation of public access channels on a cable system – even if the operation is done by a private entity – a traditional, exclusive public function?
No. Operation of public access channels on a cable system is not a traditional, exclusive public function. Moreover, the fact that a private entity such as MNN opens its property for speech by others does not make that private entity a state actor. In operating the public access channels, MNN is private actor, not a state actor and thus, MNN is not subject to First Amendment constrains on its editorial discretion.
As opposed to the majority’s description of Manhattan Neighborhood Network as a private property owner that opened up its property to others, MNN was appointed by the government to administer a constitutional public forum. New York City secured a property interest in public access television channels when it granted a cable franchise to a cable company and the state law requires those public-access channels to be made open to the public on terms that make them a public forum. New York City contracted out the administration of that forum to a private entity, MNN. By accepting the agency relationship, MNN stepped into the City’s shoes and thus qualifies as a state actor, subject to the First Amendment.
The Free Speech Clause prohibits only governmental abridgment of speech and the clause doesn’t prohibit private abridgment of speech. A private actor may qualify as a state actor when it exercises “powers traditionally exclusively reserved to the State.” The fact that the federal, state, or local government exercised such function in the past or still does is not sufficient to meet this qualification. History since the first appearance of public access channels in 1971 shows that operation of public access channels on a cable system has been performed by many public and private actors such as libraries and schools and never traditionally and exclusively been performed by government.