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When pornographic films accidentally aired on the cable access channel Christmas morning, the city of Akron was flooded with complaints. That was too much for officials, who had heard for years from residents angry because the channel that showed school programming by day was airing a mix of sermons, sexually suggestive music shows and homemade skin flicks by night. Stricter rules now govern what goes on the air and the company has imposed a fee for public access, but one producer has sued and what started as a local rift has ballooned into a censorship battle that is being watched nationwide. Both sides are waiting for a federal judge reviewing a request for an injunction to stop the fee. Public access cable stations usually air low-budget community announcements, educational programming and local government meetings. Some show amateur music videos and local political commentary. Rules vary nationwide, based on agreements between municipalities and cable companies. Akron’s access station, Channel 15, initially aired tapes for free, but it toughened rules earlier this month, requiring $25 payment per tape, proof of residence in the area and a promise to feature only local residents. “I find the new rules offensive and a denial of our rights to access TV,” said Rabbi David A. Lipper. His Temple Israel of Akron can no longer afford to air its weekly services. The stricter rules are intended to save money and rein in a channel that had become too busy to manage, said Bill Jasso, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable Inc. The company denies the change has anything to do with controlling content. But Al Henderson believes his First Amendment rights are in jeopardy. “Illmatic TV” — his 1 a.m. variety show that aired porn scenes sent by a friend in Los Angeles along with music videos and interviews with area artists — can’t air because Henderson is not from Akron and neither were the people in the sex scenes. The new rules technically don’t target content, but they have the effect of getting controversial shows off the air because many of those tapes are produced by out-of-towners or include non-local content. Rose Wilcher, whose company FreedomJournal.TV produced 24 shows that aired on Channel 15, has taken Time Warner and city leaders to federal court, claiming the rule changes amount to censorship. Wilcher’s shows range from local and national politics to religion. Although she lives in Akron, some of her most popular programs, such as “Democracy Now!,” are now off the air because they feature out-of-towners. “There is a whole world outside of Akron and now they are saying I can’t even go into the local suburbs with my camera,” Wilcher said. While U.S. District Court Judge David Dowd reviews her request for the injunction, the court denied Wilcher’s earlier request for a temporary restraining order to block the rules. Dowd has not said when he will rule. Local access channels have also caused disputes in other cities. The city council in Kansas City voted to ax its access channel rather than allow Ku Klux Klan programming but reversed itself under threat of a lawsuit. The East Chicago, Ind., council last year voted to eliminate its channel, which often featured programs critical of the council, and create a municipal channel run by city officials. In 1995, the Beverly Hills council, which also was frequently criticized on the access station, shut down its channel in spite of high-profile protests, citing funding concerns. Time Warner sees the Ohio case as a local dispute. Cable access advocates, however, say they hope it will lead to clear, uniform rules that producers and city councils across the country could follow. “It’s pretty much been left up to the determination of the city councils and the cable companies, which is not enough,” said Roger Martin, president of the Public Access Awareness Association in Los Angeles. “We need guidelines. We need to tell people what to expect.” Cities nationwide are increasingly deciding against continuing cable access stations rather than face similar headaches, Jasso said. Time Warner surveys show about 10 percent of any given community’s cable subscribers say they watch access stations, Jasso said. The company has 11 million customers in 27 states. In Akron, what began in 1983 as a way to air school board meetings grew into a forum that hundreds of people used in ways neither the cable company nor city envisioned. “We’ve got pornos. We’ve got things it was not intended to be a vehicle for, but because of the First Amendment, everything is protected,” city spokesman Mark Williamson said. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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