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U.S. Const. amend. I, subject only to narrow and well-understood exceptions, does not countenance governmental control over the content of messages expressed by private individuals. Courts apply the most exacting scrutiny to regulations that suppress, disadvantage, or impose differential burdens upon speech because of its content. Laws that compel speakers to utter or distribute speech bearing a particular message are subject to the same rigorous scrutiny. In contrast, regulations that are unrelated to the content of speech are subject to an intermediate level of scrutiny because in most cases they pose a less substantial risk of excising certain ideas or viewpoints from the public dialogue.
Sections 4 and 5 of the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, 47 USCS 534 and 535 (the "must-carry" provisions), generally require cable operators to carry the signals of specified numbers, based on cable system size, of local commercial television stations ( 4) and local noncommercial educational television stations ( 5). Soon after the Act became law, a number of cable programmers and cable operators filed five separate actions in the District Court of Columbia against the Federal Government, in which actions the cable entities challenged the constitutionality of the must-carry provisions. Additional parties intervened. A three-judge District Court, which convened as required under the Act to hear any civil action challenging the constitutionality of the must-carry provisions, consolidated the actions. The District Court, granting summary judgment in favor of the government and the intervenor-defendants, expressed the view that the must-carry provisions were consistent with the Federal Constitution's First Amendment under an intermediate standard of scrutiny, since the preservation of local broadcasting was an important governmental interest; and the must-carry provisions were sufficiently tailored to serve that interest.
Did the District Court err in granting summary judgment in favor of the government and the intervenor-defendants?
The Supreme Court vacated the summary judgment order and remanded, holding that the Cable Act's must-carry rules were content-neutral in application, as they were not activated by any particular message spoken by cable operators and thus exacted no content-based penalty. The Court held that the government must show that the economic health of local broadcasting was in genuine jeopardy and in need of the protections afforded by the must-carry. The Court also concluded that since a genuine issue of material fact - i.e., the economic necessity of the must-carry provision - was in doubt, summary judgment was inappropriate.