Wednesday, May 11, 2016

William Paterson University pays $25,000, Wayne Township pays $50,000, to settle cable television public access channel censorship lawsuit.

On April 29, 2016, William Paterson University and the Township of Wayne (Passaic County) agreed to pay a total of $75,000 to pay the attorney fees of a local man who claimed that the Township and University violated his First Amendment rights by preventing him from airing his cable show on public access channels.

In his complaint, William J. Brennan, producer of "The New Jersey Civil Circus" television program, alleged that Township and the University, which control the two "Public, Educational and Governmental" channels provided by the Township's franchise agreement with Cablevision, violated his rights by preventing his show from airing on those channels.

According to the complaint, Sandra L. Miller and Brian Gorski, who are employees of the University and exercise editorial discretion over programming aired on Wayne's Channel 77, told Brennan in 2010 that his program violated "general rules of conduct" because it used the word "tit."  Brennan claimed that his program's use of the word was not "lewd, lascivious or obscene" but described "unethical politicians obtaining government benefits and payments [from]the 'public tit'"

After he removed "tit" from the program, Brennan claimed that his show was still rejected because he had declared his candidacy for State Assembly and that a Township ordinance severely curtailed a political candidate's right to have his or her programming aired on the channels.  Ten days after the suit was filed, however, Brennan claimed the Township reversed its decision and aired his program and that the Township repealed the ordinance several months later.

Still, the University allegedly persisted in censoring Brennan's program unless it met a "general rules of conduct" code that Brennan claimed was not provided to him until "many months" after his lawsuit was filed.  The code allowed for the University to reject programming that did not meet a "good broadcasting practice and taste" standard which Brennan argued is so vague that it "gives essentially unbridled discretion to William Paterson University to reject any proposed programming."

The case is captioned Brennan v. William Paterson University, et al, Federal Case No. 2:11-cv-06101 and Brennan's lawyer was Donald F. Burke of Brick.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Brennan's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that William Paterson and Wayne Township or their insurers, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Brennan $75,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.