June 17, 2019

Supreme Court Decides Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck

On June 17, 2019, the United States Supreme Court decided Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, No. 17-1702, holding that a private nonprofit corporation that operates the public-access channels on the cable system in Manhattan is not a state actor that is subject to the First Amendment.

Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) is a private nonprofit corporation that New York City has designated to operate the public-access channels on Time Warner’s cable system in Manhattan. DeeDee Halleck and Jesus Papoleto Melendez produced a film about MNN’s alleged neglect of the East Harlem community and MNN televised it on its public-access channels. MNN later suspended Halleck and Melendez from all MNN services and facilities. Halleck and Melendez then sued MNN in federal district court, claiming that MNN violated their First Amendment free-speech rights when it restricted their access to the public-access channels because of the content of their film. The district court dismissed the claim on the ground that MNN is not a state actor and therefore is not subject to First Amendment restrictions on its editorial discretion. The Second Circuit reversed, concluding that MNN is a state actor subject to First Amendment constraints because the public-access channels in Manhattan are a “public forum” for First Amendment purposes and “public forums are usually operated by governments.”

The Supreme Court reversed. The Free Speech Clause prohibits only governmental, not private, abridgment of speech. Under the state-action doctrine, a private entity may be considered a state actor when it exercises a function “traditionally exclusively reserved to the State.” The Court emphasized that to be a to qualify as a traditional, exclusive public function within the meaning of the state-action doctrine, the government must have traditionally and exclusively performed the function, and that very few functions fall into that category. The Court concluded that operation of public-access channels on a cable system has not traditionally and exclusively been performed by government, so it does not constitute state action. Indeed, public-access channels have been operated by both private and public actors over time. The Court rejected Halleck’s argument that public-access channels on a cable system constitute a “public forum” where speakers cannot be excluded based on their viewpoint, concluding that the argument misses the threshold state-action question. A public forum exists when the government provides a forum for speech. But when a private party provides a forum for speech, that party is not ordinarily constrained by the First Amendment because it is not a state actor. The Court also rejected Halleck’s argument that the government’s regulation of MNN with respect to public-access channels made MNN a state actor. The Court held that New York City’s designation of MNN to operate the public-access channels is similar to a government license or government contract, and such licenses or contracts do not convert the private party into a state actor unless the private party is performing a traditional, exclusive public function. Even the fact that a government heavily regulates a private entity does not make it a state actor. Finally the Court rejected Halleck’s argument that the public-access channels are actually the property of New York City, not Time Warner or MNN, and that MNN is simply managing government property on behalf of New York City. The Court held that the public-access channels simply are not New York City’s property, they are Time Warner’s. The franchise agreements between New York City and Time Warner do not give the City any property interest in the public-access channels. The fact that the City allowed Time Warner to lay cable along public rights-of-way does not make it a state actor.

The Court concluded by noting that its conclusion should not be read too broadly, and that when government decide to operate public-access channels on a local cable system themselves, the First Amendment may constrain the government’s operation of those channels. But because the public-access channels at issue here were not operated by the government, the First Amendment did not apply.

Justice Kavanaugh delivered the opinion of the Court in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion.

Download Opinion of the Court.

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