On its face, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Manhattan Community Access v. Halleck resolved a narrow question about whether a nonprofit public access channel operator was a state actor subject to First Amendment constraints. But the Court’s opinion may have invited a more critical inquiry into the role that the government plays in regulating access to cable systems.
The history of this case starts in 1984, when Congress granted state and local governments the authority to require cable operators to set aside cable channels for public access. The New York Public Service Commission utilized this authority and required Time Warner—now Charter—to set aside channels on its cable system in New York City for public access. In turn, New York City delegated operation of the public access channels to a nonprofit called Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN). Under New York state law, these public access channels must be made available to the public “on a first-come, first-served, nondiscriminatory basis.”