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Public-Access TV Group Sues Fla. County

The not-for-profit corporation that operates a public-access channel called Speak Up Tampa Bay is suing Florida's Hillsborough County for cutting channel funds, saying the county used budget woes as a pretext to censor constitutionally protected speech.

Speak Up Tampa Bay Public Access Television Inc. filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida (Case No. 8:07-CV-1782) in Tampa against the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners and Hillsborough County.

On Wednesday, federal Judge James S. Moody refused to issue a preliminary restraining order against the county, saying after a hearing that the plaintiffs didn't establish a substantial likelihood of success for the case.

The judge did say that if the plaintiffs discover more evidence of efforts to repress protected speech, they could seek another restraining order or go to trial and seek a permanent injunction, according to plaintiffs' counsel David M. Snyder.

The non-profit firm said commissioners terminated the rights of county residents to use a public-access television facility after Sept. 30 and cut out the $355,443 in annual funding for Tampa Bay Community Network.

The channel is carried by Bright House Networks, Verizon FiOS TV and Comcast.

The county, in a budget passed Sept. 20, cut about $56 million in discretionary funding (from a $4 billion budget) as it implements a state law mandating property tax cuts at the city and county levels.

The county maintained about $2 million in funding for a government channel, though, which Speak Up Tampa Bay called “the government playing favorites based who is speaking and what they are saying.” Another channel, an education outlet, received about $250,000 in funding.

Defenders of the public-access channel — which the Web site My Fox Tampa Bay described as having “a unique mix of characters ranging from Christian ministers to a dominatrix to Tampa Bay strip club king Joe Redner” — cite governmental efforts over the years to cut the channel's funds over objections to its content.

In court papers, the county said it had to cut numerous services “and in some cases entire divisions” from the budget, using its legislative discretion.

It also said the public-access channel — which separately receives funding from the city of Tampa — continued to operate after the county funding was cut off on Sept. 30.

Legal precedents establishing that governments can't censor public-access channels go back to a 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a relevant portion of the 1992 Cable Act.