Advocates Sue for Philly Access Nets

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Cable viewers in most communities can sit in the comfort of their own homes and heckle the public access coverage of the gadflies pontificating at the City Council meeting — but not in Philadelphia.

Despite a law on the books for 18 years indicating the city's intent to launch public, educational and government channels, there are still no outlets for the vox populi
there. Public-access supporters say Philadelphia is the largest city in the nation without public channels.

A coalition of public groups has gone to federal court there to compel the city council to enforce the 1984 ordinance. They want an end to the "corporate welfare" that lets local operator Comcast Corp. commercially program the five channel slots that its franchise specifies are supposed to be dedicated to local production.

Danielle Redden, campaign manager for the Philadelphia Community Access Coalition, said the group didn't agitate for enforcement of the ordinance in prior years due to the poor financial condition of the city in the 1980s and 1990s. The group recognized the city had other priorities, she said.

But now, access supporters are tired of excuses, she added.

Redden suggested that the close relationship between Philadelphia-based Comcast and the government is at the root of the city's indecision on public access.

City officials publicly continue to cite a lack of available funds for its portion of access support (the coalition said Comcast has paid its access obligation). Officials are also fearful of establishing channels that could become a home to hate speech.

The suit was filed March 21 in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs include the access coalition, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, the city's chapter of the National Organization for Women, the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force, Citizens for Consumer Justice and several individuals, including professors from the University of Pennsylvania.

The suit targets Mayor John Street and city council president Anna C. Verna. Comcast is not named in the lawsuit.

A spokesman for the city solicitor's office couldn't comment on specific issues due to the litigation. The city's civil rights unit is reviewing the suit's claims.

"It's a sad situation," said Bunnie Riedel of the Alliance for Community Media, an advocacy group. "It's ironic, in the home of Constitution Hall, there is no public access."

"We hoped things would change with a new mayor. He seemed quite positive," she added.

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