Access Producer Wins Free-Speech Round

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Local-access producer Ed Peruta of Wethersfield, Conn., will say what he darn well wants in prime time, and a U.S. court has backed his right to do it.

The producer hostsThe People's Perspective, telecast Saturdays at 8 p.m. on WCTV-14 on Cox Cable New England's Westfield system. Peruta successfully challenged Cox's efforts to move his program to a "safe-harbor" slot after 10 p.m.

Cox officials said they have received complaints about the host's profane outbursts throughout his show's nine-year run.

"I don't swear in public meetings, because it's the mayor's time. I didn't swear in court, because it's the judge's time. But on public access, it's my time," said Peruta. "I talk people talk."

But his people talk became too colorful for Cox on July 15. Peruta conceded he used the word f_ _ _, along with other swear words, on the air.

On July 20, Peter Talbot, the Cox New England community-affairs manager, warned Peruta in writing that use of "obscene" language violates the Cox Communications Public Access User's Handbook. The system specifically prohibits the use of "profane language" and obscenity, the e-mail warning said.

Cox threatened to move Peruta to a timeslot between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

John Wolfe, vice president of government and public relations for Cox New England, said the 60,000-home system has received complaints about Peruta for years.

"He curses on every show," he said.

Cox recently completed refranchising proceedings before the state's Department of Utility Control. Based on those public hearings, the operator believes it has a mandate to clean up access programming.

"His is the only show we receive complaints about," he added.

But Peruta filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, Conn., and his attorneys won a preliminary injunction against the operator on Sept. 1.

"I don't use images or words that aren't available in any public library. [Cox] serves 60,000 homes, and they shoot in nudity and profanity, and they charge $50 a pop," Peruta said.

Brian Silver, Peruta's attorney, said the complaints were generated by five or six individuals with a grudge against the show's host.

The preliminary injunction prevents Cox from exercising its authority to move the show pending a full trial.

Peruta and the attorney believe they convinced the judge that the host's language was profane but not obscene or indecent.

Wolfe said attorneys for Cox are reviewing Judge Stefan Underhill's ruling before deciding on the operator's next move.

Representatives of the county's public-access lobbying group, the Alliance for Community Media, said little case law exists on language-based challenges.

Bunnie Riedel, the group's executive, said it was foolish for any operator to even attempt to hand anyone a list of prohibited words.

"That's where [operators] get in trouble, when they're seen as an editor," she said.

The alliance's handbook on controversial programming includes a non-specific definition of obscenity. Most access corporations vaguely describe adult themes, and leave it to producers to define their own content.

That allows complainants to challenge a producer in court, with the access corporation left out of the equation, she said.

The "correct way" is for complainants to ask a district attorney to confiscate and review tapes, she said.

While the issue is pending, Peruta has not mellowed one whit.

"It will be a cold [expletive deleted] day in hell when I won't fight back," he said. "I'm going forward with it; I don't care how much it costs.

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