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PhotoIf you're eagerly awaiting the next season of Downton Abbey, you may be dismayed to learn that political and "public-interest" ads may soon be coming to a public television station near you. 

In one of two decisions not likely to be popular with those who dislike advertising, a federal appeals court in California has overturned a federal law barring public broadcast stations from accepting political and public-issue ads (you know, the ones about how great oil drilling is), saying the restriction is unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, a federal judge has ruled that Worcester's ban on outdoor tobacco ads is also unconstitutional, saying it bars tobacco companies from advertising their products -- which are legal, after all -- to adults who may legally purchase them.

What's next? Ads on Cuban TV?  

Perhaps ironically, here in the Land of the Free, the advertising that supports the free press that underpins democracy is reviled on every hand, while "public" television -- which is what foundation- and government-supported TV calls itself -- is somehow seen as inhabiting a higher plane.

But this holier-than-thou attitude cut no ice with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which reversed 2-1 a decision by a lower court that upheld the federal advertising ban.

What? You think there's already advertising on public television? No, no, those are just underwriting announcements from public-spirited corporations and foundations that are strictly interested in uplifting public culture, educating the teeming masses and so forth. You know, the oil and drug companies.

The way the Ninth sees it, ads that push ideas -- like political and public-interest ads -- are protected by the First Amendment while ads that try to sell something, like cars or soap, are "commercial" speech, which has always been accorded less protection than the ravings of the nearest zealot on a soapbox.

Whether public TV and radio stations decide to hire flotillas of advertising salespeople remains to be seen, but it's hard to see how the tide can be held at bay for too long, given the rather threadbare condition of many public stations, set upon by the likes of YouTube and Vimeo, not to mention Hulu and Netflix and the dread gargantua Amazon. 

Public outcast

The case before the Ninth involved a relative outcast of the self-consciously patrician public broadcasting world -- KMTP, a San Francisco station operated by the nonprofit Minority Television Project.  It doesn't receive funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and subsists entirely on what it is able to scrape together from donations, corporate sponsorships and the occasional grant. 

It broadcasts a hodge-podge of programming, everything from what appears to be a wedding channel to German, Russian and Italian programming.  

In 2002, the Federal Communications Commission fined the station $10,000 for airing commercials. For whatever reason, the Ninth didn't see fit to return the $10,000, even though little KMTP could probably use the money.

Blunt bans

In the Worcester case, U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock found that, however much it may wish its residents didn't smoke, "Worcester may not prohibit tobacco advertisements in order to prevent adults from making the choice to legally purchase tobacco products."

The judge also snuffed out Worcester's banning of ads for "blunt wraps," rolling papers generally used to assemble marijuana joints. 

Even though Worcester has outlined the sale of blunts, they are legal in neighboring Fitchburg and, therefore, can be advertised in Worcester, the court held.


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Cindy Claassen
for you Downtown Ab fans.....
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