Green Party starts new campaign in Illinois
The elections may be over, but the Illinois Green Party could still have one battle left to fight. The party, along with this year's candidates for governor and senator, Rich Whitney and LeAlan Jones, respectively, filed suit Saturday over the candidates' exclusion from a debate on public television station WTTW during the week leading up to the election. Filed in federal court, the suit names WTTW, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting Service and president and chief executive of WTTW Daniel J. Schmidt.
Legal experts say that the Greens' court battle is just about as much of an uphill fight as its political battle. The Supreme Court ruled 12 years ago that an Arkansas public broadcaster had editorial discretion under the First Amendment to exclude a third-party candidate.
Whitney and Jones allege that WTTW, PBS and the CPB violated their nonprofit, 501(c)(3) status, which prohibits organizations from "directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for election of public office." They further allege that the three corporate defendants also violated the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Act, which similarly states, "The Corporation may not contribute to or otherwise support any political party or candidate for elective public office." In both claims, the candidates suggest that the defendants supported the Democratic and Republican candidates by excluding the Green Party candidates from the debates.
The suit also alleges the public broadcasters violated the Federal Communications Act, specifically citing the equal time provisions associated with political candidates. The provision, outlined in Section 315(a) of the act, states that an organization permitting a candidate for political office to use a broadcasting station must afford all other such candidates equal opportunities to use the broadcasting station as well.
The final complaint maintains that Schmidt violated the First and Fifth Amendment rights of Whitney and Jones by discriminating against them on the basis of their political beliefs. This charge, in particular, recalls the 1998 Supreme Court Case Arkansas Educational Television Commission v. Forbes, in which Ralph Forbes, an independent candidate for a U.S. House of Representatives seat, sued the commission for violating his First Amendment rights when the commission excluded him from a similarly televised debate.
In Forbes, the court ruled in favor of the AETC, holding that the televised debate did not constitute a public forum and, therefore, did not violate the First Amendment as long as it did not discriminate based on a political viewpoint. The court explained the commission's decision was, "a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral exercise of journalistic discretion consistent with the First Amendment." The court further concluded that the record showed Forbes was excluded "because he had not generated appreciable public interest" and not because of his political views.
Recent projections showed that both Whitney and Jones received an estimated 3 percent of the vote. That share falls short of the 5 percent required to maintain the party's standing as an "established" political party. It may also fall short of displaying an "appreciable public interest" as it was defined in the Arkansas public television case.
Kraig Koch is a graduate student in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Prior to SIUC, he earned his Bachelor of Arts from Eastern Illinois University and, afterward, spent a year working for the clerk of the Illinois Supreme Court. Kraig will graduate with a Master of Science in Professional Media and Media Management in May 2011.