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FL: Judge Won't Force County To Fund Public Access TV

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Judge Won't Force County To Fund Public Access TV Channel For Now

By ELLEN GEDALIUS The Tampa Tribune

Published: Oct 4, 2007

TAMPA - With its funding eliminated and a judge's ruling against it, a public access television network is unable to allow county residents to produce programming, at least for the time being.

U.S. District Judge James Moody on Wednesday denied Speak Up Tampa Bay's request for Hillsborough County to immediately restore funding to the network while the station pursues legal action against the county.

On Monday, Tampa Bay Community Network filed a lawsuit against Hillsborough County, arguing the commissioners' decision to eliminate the station's $355,000 subsidy was a violation of free speech rights.

Speak Up Tampa Bay is the nonprofit group that manages the Tampa Bay Community Network.

The network asked a judge to consider forcing the county to restore funding for 10 days.

In court on Wednesday, David Snyder, an attorney for the network, argued the county's decision to continue funding its own government station, as well as the Education Channel, showed the county was playing favorites by not funding speech it doesn't like.

Louise Thompson, executive director of Speak Up, said, "There's no reason to shut it down when they keep their own station going. It's unfair, unjust."

Several shows on Speak Up feature people who sometimes lodge blistering criticism against county commissioners.

"It's not about the budget," Snyder said. "It's about censorship and equal protection for speech."

County budget director Eric Johnson, however, argued his recommendation to eliminate funding, and the board's subsequent approval, was simply a matter of financial priorities.

"I saw it as a discretionary program," Johnson said.

Property tax reform mandated by the state Legislature this year forced Hillsborough to cut about $56 million from its $4 billion budget.

The county trimmed or eliminated several programs and cut about $280,000 from its own government-access station. The station's budget is about $2 million.

The county also recommended eliminating all funding to the Education Channel, but commissioners successfully pushed for some of the money to be restored.

At the heart of Speak Up's case, though, was whether the county was trying to censor the public-access channel by pulling its money.

Moody said the evidence wasn't there, as it was five years ago when he ruled in favor of the station in a similar case.

"I don't sense that same level of proof," Moody said.

Thompson said she, the network's board and her attorney will discuss whether to appeal the ruling. In the meantime, the station will continue airing its own internally produced programming and shows produced by Tampa residents.

The county has no immediate plans to take the station off the air, said Carl Harness, an assistant county administrator.

Reporter Ellen Gedalius can be reached at (813) 259-7679 or

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