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Anti-Censorship Laws DO NOT Apply To Private Enterprise

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Tuesday, January 12, 2021

For all the hoopla being raised by Banana Republicans parading as GOP types, including the Loser in Chief, about the decision Twitter made to cut him (and others) off from their private non-governmental service, and who are calling it “censorship,” the United States Supreme Court has some news for you:

Censorship laws DO NOT apply to the Private Sector.


If you don’t like it, take it up with those who decided it: KAVANAUGH, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS, ALITO, and GORSUCH, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and KAGAN, JJ., joined.

The case was Argued February 25, 2019 — Decided June 17, 2019, and named Manhattan Community Access Corp. et al. v. Halleck et al.

In a Certiorari to The United States Court Of Appeals For The Second Circuit, No. 17–1702, the court ruled that “The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment prohibits only governmental, not private, abridgment of speech,” and held that MNN (private nonprofit corporation, petitioner Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN)) was not a state actor subject to the First Amendment.

The court wrote further, that, “A private entity may qualify as a state actor when, as relevant here, the entity exercises “powers traditionally exclusively re-served to the State.” The precedent for that decision was rendered in the case Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 419 U. S. 345, 352.

“The Court has stressed that “very few” functions fall into that category. Flagg Bros., Inc. v. Brooks, 436 U. S. 149, 158.”

In the decision, the court wrote in part that,

“Under the state-action doctrine as it has been articulated and applied by our precedents, we conclude that operation of public access channels on a cable system is not a traditional, exclusive public function. Moreover, a private entity such as MNN who opens its property for speech by others is not transformed by that fact alone into a state actor. In operating the public access channels, MNN is a private actor, not a state actor, and MNN therefore is not subject to First Amendment constraints on its editorial discretion. We reverse in relevant part the judgment of the Second Circuit, and we remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

The background facts of the case which formed the basis of the suit are fairly straight-forward, and reads as follows:

“DeeDee Halleck and Jesus Papoleto Melendez produced public access programming in Manhattan. They made a film about MNN’s alleged neglect of the East Harlem community. Halleck submitted the film to MNN for airing on MNN’s public access channels, and MNN later televised the film. Afterwards, MNN fielded multiple complaints about the film’s content. In response, MNN temporarily suspended Halleck from using the public access channels. Halleck and Melendez soon became embroiled in another dispute with MNN staff. In the wake of that dispute, MNN ultimately suspended Halleck and Melendez from all MNN services and facilities. Halleck and Melendez then sued MNN, among other parties, in Federal District Court. The two producers claimed that MNN violated their First Amendment free-speech rights when MNN restricted their access to the public access channels because of the content of their film.

“MNN moved to dismiss the producers’ First Amendment claim on the ground that MNN is not a state actor and therefore is not subject to First Amendment restrictions on its editorial discretion. The District Court agreed with MNN and dismissed the producers’ First Amendment claim.

“The Second Circuit reversed in relevant part. 882 F. 3d 300, 308 (2018). In the majority opinion authored by Judge Newman and joined by Judge Lohier, the court stated that the public access channels in Manhattan are a public forum for purposes of the First Amendment. Reasoning that “public forums are usually operated by governments,” the court concluded that MNN is a state actor subject to First Amendment constraints. Id., at 306–307. Judge Lohier added a concurring opinion, explaining that MNN also qualifies as a state actor for the independent reason that “New York City delegated to MNN the traditionally public function of administering and regulating speech in the public forum of Manhattan’s public access channels.” Id., at 309.

“Judge Jacobs dissented in relevant part, opining that MNN is not a state actor. He reasoned that a private entity’s operation of an open forum for speakers does not render the host entity a state actor. Judge Jacobs further stated that the operation of public access channels is not a traditional, exclusive public function.

“We granted certiorari to resolve disagreement among the Courts of Appeals on the question whether private operators of public access cable channels are state actors subject to the First Amendment. 586 U. S. __ (2018). Compare 882 F. 3d 300 (case below), with Wilcher v. Akron, 498 F. 3d 516 (CA6 2007); and Alliance for Community Media v. FCC, 56 F. 3d 105 (CADC 1995).”

Certiorari [pronounced “sir-sha-rar-ee”] is a writ [a written order issued by a court] seeking review of a lower court decision by a higher court.

The court wrote also that,

“We of course take no position on any potential state-law questions. We simply conclude that MNN, as a private actor, is not subject to First Amendment constraints on how it exercises editorial discretion over the speech and speakers on its public access channels.”

“MNN is a private entity that operates public access channels on a cable system. Operating public access channels on a cable system is not a traditional, exclusive public function. A private entity such as MNN who opens its property for speech by others is not transformed by that fact alone into a state actor. Under the text of the Constitution and our precedents, MNN is not a state actor subject to the First Amendment. We reverse in relevant part the judgment of the Second Circuit, and we remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

It is so ordered.

The Roberts Court, June 1, 2017. Seated, from left to right: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony M. Kennedy, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer. Standing, from left to right: Justices Eleana Kagan, Samuel A. Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and Neil M. Gorsuch. Photograph by Franz Jantzen, Supreme Court Curator’s Office.

Now… for a look at the other side of the coin.


“The Court tells a very reasonable story about a case that is not before us. I write to address the one that is.

“This is a case about an organization appointed by the government to administer a constitutional public forum. (It is not, as the Court suggests, about a private property owner that simply opened up its property to others.) New York City (the City) secured a property interest in public-access television channels when it granted a cable franchise to a cable company. State regulations require those public-access channels to be made open to the public on terms that render them a public forum. The City contracted out the administration of that forum to a private organization, petitioner Manhattan Community Access Corporation (MNN). By accepting that agency relationship, MNN stepped into the City’s shoes and thus qualifies as a state actor, subject to the First Amendment like any other.


“A cable-television franchise is, essentially, a license to create a system for distributing cable TV in a certain area. It is a valuable right, usually conferred on a private company by a local government. See 47 U. S. C. §§522(9)–(10), 541(a)(2), (b)(1); Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. v. FCC, 512 U. S. 622, 628 (1994). A private company cannot enter a local cable market without one. §541(b)(1).

“Cable companies transmit content through wires that stretch “between a transmission facility and the television sets of individual subscribers.” Id., at 627–628. Creating this network of wires is a disruptive undertaking that “entails the use of public rights-of-way and easements.” Id., at 628. New York State authorizes municipalities to grant cable franchises to cable companies of a certain size only if those companies agree to set aside at least one public access channel. 16 N. Y. Codes, Rules & Regs. §§895.1(f), 895.4(b)(1) (2016). New York then requires that those public-access channels be open to all comers on “a first-come, first-served, nondiscriminatory basis.” §895.4(c)(4). Likewise, the State prohibits both cable franchisees and local governments from “exercis[ing] any editorial control” over the channels, aside from regulating obscenity and other unprotected content. §§895.4(c)(8)–(9).


“Years ago, New York City (no longer a party to this suit) and Time Warner Entertainment Company (never a party to this suit) entered into a cable-franchise agreement. App. 22. Time Warner received a cable franchise; the City received public-access channels. The agreement also provided that the public-access channels would be operated by an independent, nonprofit corporation chosen by the Manhattan borough president. But the City, as the practice of other New York municipalities confirms, could have instead chosen to run the channels itself. See §895.4(c)(1); Brief for Respondents 35 (ci ting examples).

“MNN is the independent nonprofit that the borough president appointed to run the channels; indeed, MNN appears to have been incorporated in 1991 for that precise purpose, with seven initial board members selected by the borough president (though only two thus selected today). See App. 23; Brief for Respondents 7, n. 1. The City arranged for MNN to receive startup capital from Time Warner and to be funded through franchise fees from Time Warner and other Manhattan cable franchisees. App. 23; Brief for New York County Lawyers Association (NYCLA) as Amicus Curiae 27; see also App. to Brief for Respondents 19a. As the borough president announced upon MNN’s formation in 1991, MNN’s “central charge is to administer and manage all the public access channels of the cable television systems in Manhattan.” App. to Brief for NYCLA as Amicus Curiae 1.

“As relevant here, respondents DeeDee Halleck and Jesus Papoleto Melendez sued MNN in U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York under 42 U. S. C. §1983.They alleged that the public-access channels, “[r]equired by state regulation and [the] local franchise agreements,” are “a designated public forum of unlimited character”; that the City had “delegated control of that public forum to MNN”; and that MNN had, in turn, engaged in viewpoint discrimination in violation of respondents’ First Amendment rights. App. 39.

“The District Court dismissed respondents’ First Amendment claim against MNN. The U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed that dismissal, concluding that the public-access channels “are public forums and that [MNN’s] employees were sufficiently alleged to be state actors taking action barred by the First Amendment.” 882 F. 3d 300, 301–302 (2018). Because the case before us arises from a motion to dismiss, respondents’ factual allegations must be accepted as true. Hernandez v. Mesa, 582 U. S. ___, ___ (2017) (per curiam) (slip op., at 1).


“I would affirm the judgment below. The channels are clearly a public forum: The City has a property interest in them, and New York regulations require that access to those channels be kept open to all. And because the City (1) had a duty to provide that public forum once it granted a cable franchise and (2) had a duty to abide by the First Amendment once it provided that forum, those obligations did not evaporate when the City delegated the administration of that forum to a private entity. Just as the City would have been subject to the First Amendment had it chosen to run the forum itself, MNN assumed the same responsibility when it accepted the delegation.


“When a person alleges a violation of the right to free speech, courts generally must consider not only what was said but also in what context it was said. On the one hand, there are “public forums,” or settings that the government has opened in some way for speech by the public (or some subset of it). The Court’s precedents subdivide this broader category into various subcategories, with the level of leeway for government regulation of speech varying accordingly. See Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, 585 U. S. ___, ___ (2018) (slip op.,at 7). Compare Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U. S. 474, 480 (1988)(streets and public parks, traditional public forums), with Southeastern Promotions, Ltd. v. Conrad, 420 U. S. 546, 555 (1975) (city-leased theater, designated public forum), with Christian Legal Soc. Chapter of Univ. of Cal., Hastings College of Law v. Martinez, 561 U. S. 661, 669, 679, and n. 12 (2010) (program for registered student organizations, limited public forum). But while many cases turn on which type of “forum” is implicated, the important point here is that viewpoint discrimination is impermissible in them all. See Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 U. S. 98, 106 (2001).

“On the other hand, there are contexts that do not fall under the “forum” rubric. For one, there are contexts in which the government is simply engaging in its own speech and thus has freedom to select the views it prefers. See, e.g., Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., 576 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2015) (slip op., at 6–7) (specialty license plates); Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U. S. 460, 467–469, 481 (2009) ( privately donated permanent monuments in a public park).¹ In addition, there are purely private spaces, where the First Amendment is (as relevant here) inapplicable. The First Amendment leaves a private store owner (or homeowner), for example, free to remove a customer (or dinner guest) for expressing unwanted views. See, e.g., Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner, 407 U. S. 551, 569–570 (1972). In these settings, there is no First Amendment right against viewpoint discrimination.

“Here, respondents alleged viewpoint discrimination. App. 39. So a key question in this case concerns what the Manhattan public-access channels are: a public forum of some kind, in which a claim alleging viewpoint discrimination would be cognizable, or something else, such as government speech or purely private property, where picking favored viewpoints is appropriately commonplace.² Neither MNN nor the majority suggests that this is an instance of government speech. This case thus turns first and foremost on whether the public-access channels are or are not purely private property.³


¹ That does not mean that no restrictions apply at all to the government’s expression in such spaces, but it does mean that the government can pick and choose among different views. See Walker, 576 U. S., at ___, ___–___ (slip op., at 6, 17–18); Summum, 555 U. S., at 468.
² The channels are not, of course, a physical place. Under the Court’s precedents, that makes no difference: Regardless of whether something “is a forum more in a metaphysical than in a spatial or geographic sense, . . . the same principles are applicable.” Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U. S. 819, 830 (1995) ( treating “Student Activities Fund” as the forum at issue and citing cases in which a school’s mail system and a charity drive were the relevant forums).
³ As discussed below, it is possible that some (or even many) public-access channels are government speech. The channels that MNN administers, however, are clearly better thought of as a public forum given the New York regulations mandating open and equal access. See infra, at 9–10, and n. 7.



“This Court has not defined precisely what kind of governmental property interest (if any) is necessary for a public forum to exist. See Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Defense & Ed. Fund, Inc., 473 U. S. 788, 801 (1985) ( “a speaker must seek access to public property or to private property dedicated to public use”). But see ante, at11, n. 3 (appearing to reject the phrase “private property dedicated to public use” as “passing dicta”). I assume for the sake of argument in this case that public-forum analysis is inappropriate where the government lacks a “significant prop-erty interest consistent with the communicative purpose of the forum.” Denver Area Ed. Telecommunications Consortium, Inc. v. FCC, 518 U. S. 727, 829 (1996) (THOMAS, J., concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part).

“Such an interest is present here. As described above, New York State required the City to obtain public-access channels from Time Warner in exchange for awarding a cable franchise. See supra, at 2. The exclusive right to use these channels (and, as necessary, Time Warner’s infrastructure) qualifies as a property interest, akin at the very least to an easement.

“The last time this Court considered a case centering on public-access channels, five Justices described an interest like the one here as similar to an easement. Although JUSTICE BREYER did not conclude that a public-access channel was indeed a public forum, he likened the cable company’s agreement to reserve such channels “to the reservation of a public easement, or a dedication of land for streets and parks, as part of a municipality’s approval of a subdivision of land.” Denver Area, 518 U. S., at 760–761 (joined by Stevens and Souter, JJ.). And Justice Kennedy observed not only that an easement would be an appropriate analogy, id., at 793–794 (opinion concurring in part, concurring in judgment in part, and dissenting in part, joined by GINSBURG, J.), but also that “[p]ublic access channels meet the definition of a public forum,” id., at 791, “even though they operate over property to which the cable operator holds title,” id., at 792; see also id., at 792–793 (noting that the entire cable system’s existence stems from the municipality’s decision to grant the franchise). What those five Justices suggested in 1996 remains true today.

“A common idiom describes property as a ‘bundle of sticks’—a collection of individual rights which, in certain combinations, constitute property.” United States v. Craft, 535 U. S. 274, 278 (2002). Rights to exclude and to use are two of the most crucial sticks in the bundle. See id., at 283. “State law determines . . . which sticks are in a person’s bundle,” id., at 278, and therefore defining property itself is a state-law exercise.⁴ As for whether there is a sufficient property interest to trigger First Amendment forum analysis, related precedents show that there is.

“As noted above, there is no disputing that Time Warner owns the wires themselves. See Turner, 512 U. S., at 628. If the wires were a road, it would be easy to define the public’s right to walk on it as an easement. See, e.g., In re India Street, 29 N. Y. 2d 97, 100–103, 272 N. E 2d 518, 518–520 (1971). Similarly, if the wires were a theater, there would be no question that a government’s long-term lease to use it would be sufficient for public-forum purposes. Southeastern Promotions, 420 U. S., at 547, 555. But some may find this case more complicated because the wires are not a road or a theater that one can physically occupy; they are a conduit for transmitting signals that appear as television channels. In other words, the question is how to understand the right to place content on those channels using those wires.
⁴ The parties have not pointed this Court to any New York law definitively establishing the status of the channels. But even if there were uncertainty about the status of the channels under New York law, that would not be a reason to resolve the case against respondents (plaintiffs below) at the motion to dismiss stage. See infra, at 12, n. 9, 14.

“The right to convey expressive content using someone else’s physical infrastructure is not new. To give another low-tech example, imagine that one company owns a billboard and another rents space on that billboard. The renter can have a property interest in placing content on the billboard for the lease term even though it does not own the billboard itself. See, e.g., Naegele Outdoor Advertising Co. of Minneapolis v. Lakeville, 532 N. W. 2d 249,253 (Minn. 1995); see also Matter of XAR Corp. v. Di Donato, 76 App. Div. 2d 972, 973, 429 N. Y. S. 2d 59, 60 (1980) (“Although invariably labeled ‘leases,’ agreements to erect advertising signs or to place signs on walls or fences are easements in gross”).

“The same principle should operate in this higher tech realm. Just as if the channels were a billboard, the City obtained rights for exclusive use of the channels by the public for the foreseeable future; no one is free to take the channels away, short of a contract renegotiation. Cf. Craft, 535 U. S., at 283. The City also obtained the right to administer, or delegate the administration of, the chan-nels. The channels are more intangible than a billboard, but no one believes that a right must be tangible to qualify as a property interest. See, e.g., Armstrong v. United States, 364 U. S. 40, 48–49 (1960) (treating destruction of valid liens as a taking); Adams Express Co. v. Ohio State Auditor, 166 U. S. 185, 219 (1897) (treating “privileges, corporate franchises, contracts or obligations” as taxable property). And it is hardly unprecedented for a govern-ment to receive a right to transmit something over a pri-vate entity’s infrastructure in exchange for conferring something of value on that private entity; examples go back at least as far as the 1800s.⁵

“I do not suggest that the government always obtains a property interest in public-access channels created by franchise agreements. But the arrangement here is con-sistent with what the Court would treat as a governmen-tal property interest in other contexts. New York City gave Time Warner the right to lay wires and sell cable TV. In exchange, the City received an exclusive right to send its own signal over Time Warner’s infrastructure—no different than receiving a right to place ads on another’s billboards. Those rights amount to a governmental property interest in the channels, and that property interest is clearly “consistent with the communicative purpose of the forum,” Denver Area, 518 U. S., at 829 (opinion of THOMAS, J.). Indeed, it is the right to transmit the very content to which New York law grants the public open and equal access.


“With the question of a governmental property interest resolved, it should become clear that the public-access channels are a public forum.⁶ Outside of classic examples like sidewalks and parks, a public forum exists only where the government has deliberately opened up the setting for speech by at least a subset of the public. Cornelius, 473 U. S., at 802. “Accordingly, the Court has looked to the policy and practice of the government,” as well as the nature of the property itself, “to ascertain whether it intended to designate a place not traditionally open to assembly and debate as a public forum.” See ibid. For example, a state college might make its facilities open to student groups, or a municipality might open up an auditorium for certain public meetings. See id., at 802–803. The requisite governmental intent is manifest here. As noted above, New York State regulations require that the channels be made available to the public “on a first-come, first-served, nondiscriminatory basis.” 16 N. Y. Codes, Rules & Regs. §895.4(c)(4); see also §§895.4(c)(8)–(9). The State, in other words, mandates that the doors be wide open for public expression. MNN’s contract with Time Warner follows suit. App. 23. And that is essentially how MNN itself describes things. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 9 (“We do not prescreen videos. We—they come into the door. We put them on the air”).⁷ These regulations “evidenc[e] a clear intent to create a public forum.” Cornelius, 473 U. S., at 802.


⁵ For example, during the railroad boom, governments obtained not only physical easements in favor of the public over tracks used, owned, and managed by private railroads, including rights to use the rails andall relevant “fixtures and appurtenances,” see, e.g., Lake Superior & Mississippi R. Co. v. United States, 93 U. S. 442, 444, 453–454 (1877), but also, in some situations, rights to transmit personnel and freight for free or at reduced rates, Ellis, Railroad Land Grant Rates, 1850–1945, 21 J. Land & P. U. Econ. 207, 209, 211–212 (1945).
⁶ Though the majority disagrees on the property question, I do not take it seriously to dispute that this point would follow. See ante, at 14–15.
⁷ New York may be uncommon (as it often is); public-access channels in other States may well have different policies and practices that make them more like government speech than constitutional forums. See Brief for Respondents 30–31; Brief for American Civil Liberties Unionet al. as Amici Curiae 13–15. New York’s scheme, however, is the only one before us.


“If New York’s public-access channels are a public forum, it follows that New York cannot evade the First Amendment by contracting out administration of that forum to a private agent. When MNN took on the responsibility of administering the forum, it stood in the City’s shoes and became a state actor for purposes of 42 U. S. C. §1983.

“This conclusion follows from the Court’s decision in West v. Atkins, 487 U. S. 42 (1988). The Court in West unanimously held that a doctor hired to provide medical care to state prisoners was a state actor for purposes of §1983. Id., at 54; see also id., at 58 (Scalia, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). Each State must provide medical care to prisoners, the Court explained, id., at 54, and when a State hires a private doctor to do that job, the doctor becomes a state actor, “‘clothed with the authority of state law,’” id., at 55. If a doctor hired by the State abuses his role, the harm is “caused, in the sense relevant for state-action inquiry,” by the State’s having incarcer-ated the prisoner and put his medical care in that doctor’s hands. Ibid.

“The fact that the doctor was a private contractor, the Court emphasized, made no difference. Ibid. It was “the physician’s function within the state system,” not his private-contractor status, that determined whether his conduct could “fairly be attributed to the State.” Id., at 55–56. Once the State imprisoned the plaintiff, it owed him duties under the Eighth Amendment; once the State delegated those duties to a private doctor, the doctor became a state actor. See ibid.; see also id., at 56–57. If the rule were any different, a State would “‘be free to contract out all services which it is constitutionally obligated to provide and leave its citizens with no means for vindication of those rights, whose protection has been delegated to ‘private’ actors, when they have been denied.’” Id., at 56, n. 14.

West resolves this case. Although the settings are different, the legal features are the same: When a government (1) makes a choice that triggers constitutional obligations, and then (2) contracts out those constitutional responsibilities to a private entity, that entity—in agreeing to take on the job—becomes a state actor for purposes of §1983.⁸

Not all acts of governmental delegation necessarily trigger constitutional obligations, but this one did. New York State regulations required the City to secure public-access channels if it awarded a cable franchise. 16 N. Y. Codes, Rules & Regs. §895.4(b)(1). The City did award a cable franchise. The State’s regulations then required the City to make the channels it obtained available on a “first-come, first-served, nondiscriminatory basis.”⁹ §895.4(c)(4). That made the channels a public forum. See supra, at 9–10. Opening a public forum, in turn, entailed First Amendment obligations.

The City could have done the job itself, but it instead delegated that job to a private entity, MNN. MNN could have said no, but it said yes. (Indeed, it appears to exist entirely to do this job.) By accepting the job, MNN accepted the City’s responsibilities. See West, 487 U. S., at 55. The First Amendment does not fall silent simply because a government hands off the administration of its constitutional duties to a private actor.

⁸ Governments are, of course, not constitutionally required to open prisons or public forums, but once they do either of these things, constitutional obligations attach. The rule that a government may not evade the Constitution by substituting a private administrator, mean-while, is not a prison-specific rule. More than 50 years ago, for example, this Court made clear in Evans v. Newton, 382 U. S. 296 (1966), that the city of Macon, Georgia, could not evade the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by handing off control of a park to a group “of ‘private’ trustees.” Id., at 301. Rather, “the public character of [the] park require[d] that it be treated as a public institution subject to the command of the Fourteenth Amendment, regardless of who ha[d] title under state law.” Id., at 302.
⁹ Accordingly, this is not a case in which a private entity has been asked to exercise standardless discretion. See, e.g., American Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, 526 U. S. 40, 52 (1999). Had New York law left MNN free to choose its favorite submissions, for example, a different result might well follow.

MNN has suggested to this Court that its contract with Time Warner allows it “to curate content, to decide to put shows together on one of our channels or a different channel.” Tr. of Oral Arg. 6; see Reply Brief 9. But MNN’s contract cannot defeat New York law’s “first-come, first-served, nondiscriminatory” scheduling requirement, 16 N. Y. Codes, Rules & Regs. §895.4(c)(4), and the discretion MNN asserts seems to be at most some limited authority to coordinate the exact placement and timing of the content it is obliged to accept indiscriminately, see Tr. of Oral Arg. 25–26. That seems akin to the authority to make reasonable time, place, and manner provisions, which is consistent with adminis-tering any public forum. See Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U. S. 781, 791 (1989). As for any factual assertions about how the channels are operated in practice, this case arises from MNN’s motion to dismiss, so the facts asserted against it must be accepted as true. Hernandez v. Mesa, 582 U. S. ___, ___ (2017) (per curiam) (slip op., at 1). And any uncertainty about the facts or New York law, in any event, would be a reason to vacate and remand, not reverse.


“The majority acknowledges that the First Amendment could apply when a local government either (1) has a property interest in public-access channels or (2) is more directly involved in administration of those channels than the City is here. Ante, at 15. And it emphasizes that it “decide[s] only the case before us in light of the record before us.” Ibid. These case-specific qualifiers sharply limit the immediate effect of the majority’s decision, but that decision is still meaningfully wrong in two ways. First, the majority erroneously decides the property question against the plaintiffs as a matter of law. Second, and more fundamentally, the majority mistakes a case about the government choosing to hand off responsibility to an agent for a case about a private entity that simply enters a marketplace.


“The majority’s explanation for why there is no governmental property interest here, ante, at 14–15, does not hold up. The majority focuses on the fact that “[b]oth Time Warner and MNN are private entities”; that Time Warner “owns its cable network, which contains the public access channels”; and that “MNN operates those public access channels with its own facilities and equipment.” Ante, at 14; see also ante, at 15. Those considerations cannot resolve this case. The issue is not who owns the cable network or that MNN uses its own property to operate the channels. The key question, rather, is whether the channels themselves are purely private property. An advertiser may not own a billboard, but that does not mean that its long-term lease is not a property interest. See supra, at 8.

The majority also says that “[n]othing in the record here suggests that a government . . . owns or leases either the cable system or the public access channels at issue here.” Ante, at 14. But the cable system itself is irrelevant, and, as explained above, the details of the exchange that yielded Time Warner’s cable franchise suggest a governmental property interest in the channels. See supra, at 6–9.

The majority observes that “the franchise agreements expressly place the public access channels ‘under the jurisdiction’ of MNN,” ante, at 14, but that language simply describes the City’s appointment of MNN to administer the channels. The majority also chides respondents for failing to “alleg[e] in their complaint that the City has a property interest in the channels,” ibid., but, fairly read, respondents’ complaint includes such an assertion.¹⁰ In any event, any ambiguity or imprecision does not justify resolving the case against respondents at the motion-to-dismiss stage. To the extent the majority has doubts about respondents’ complaint—or factual or state-law issues that may bear upon the existence of a property interest—the more prudent course would be to vacate and remand for the lower courts to consider those matters more fully. In any event, as I have explained, the best course of all would be to affirm.
¹⁰ Respondents alleged that the City “created an electronic public forum” and “delegat[ed] control of that forum to” MNN. App. 17. They further alleged that “[a]lmost all cable franchise agreements require cable operators—as a condition for easements to use the public rights-of-way—to dedicate some channels for programming by the public,” id., at 20, invoked the state regulations requiring the designation of a channel here, id., at 21, and then alleged that the City’s franchise agreement “requires Time Warner to set aside” the channels, id., at 22. While the complaint does not use the words “property interest,” those allegations can be read to include the idea that whatever was “set aside” or “dedicate[d],” id., at 20, 22, qualified as a sufficient City property interest to support respondents’ assertion of a public forum. Cf. People v. Brooklyn & Queens Transit Corp., 273 N. Y. 394, 400–401, 7 N. E. 2d 833, 835 (1937) (discussing dedications of property to public use); cf. also Denver Area Ed. Telecommunications Consortium, Inc. v. FCC, 518 U. S. 727, 794 (1996) (Kennedy, J., concurring in part, concurring in judgment in part, and dissenting in part) (noting this theory).


“More fundamentally, the majority’s opinion erroneously fixates on a type of case that is not before us: one in which a private entity simply enters the marketplace and is then subject to government regulation. The majority swings hard at the wrong pitch.

“The majority focuses on Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 419 U. S. 345 (1974), which is a paradigmatic example of a line of cases that reject §1983 liability for private actors that simply operate against a regulatory backdrop. Jackson emphasized that the “fact that a business is subject to state regulation does not by itself convert its action into that of the State.” Id., at 350; accord, ante, at 12. Thus, the fact that a utility company entered the marketplace did not make it a state actor, even if it was highly regulated. See Jackson, 419 U. S., at 358; accord, ante, at 12–13. The same rule holds, of course, for private comedy clubs and grocery stores. See ante, at 9.¹¹

The Jackson line of cases is inapposite here. MNN is not a private entity that simply ventured into the market-place. It occupies its role because it was asked to do so by the City, which secured the public-access channels in exchange for giving up public rights of way, opened those channels up (as required by the State) as a public forum, and then deputized MNN to administer them. That distinguishes MNN from a private entity that simply sets up shop against a regulatory backdrop. To say that MNN is nothing more than a private organization regulated by the government is like saying that a waiter at a restaurant is an independent food seller who just happens to be highly regulated by the restaurant’s owners.

“The majority also relies on the Court’s statements that its “public function” test requires that a function have been “traditionally and exclusively performed” by the government. Ante, at 6 (emphasis deleted); see Jackson, 419 U. S., at 352. Properly understood, that rule cabins liability in cases, such as Jackson, in which a private actor ventures of its own accord into territory shared (or regulated) by the government (e.g.,by opening a power company or a shopping center). The Court made clear in West that the rule did not reach further, explaining that “the fact that a state employee’s role parallels one in the private sector” does not preclude a finding of state action.487 U. S., at 56, n. 15.

When the government hires an agent, in other words, the question is not whether it hired the agent to do some-thing that can be done in the private marketplace too. If that were the key question, the doctor in West would not have been a state actor. Nobody thinks that orthopedics is a function “traditionally exclusively reserved to the State,” Jackson, 419 U. S., at 352.

The majority consigns West to a footnote, asserting that its “scenario is not present here because the government has no [constitutional] obligation to operate public access channels.” Ante, at 7, n. 1. The majority suggests that West is different because “the State was constitutionally obligated to provide medical care to prison inmates.” Ante, at 7, n. 1. But what the majority ignores is that the State in West had no constitutional obligation to open the prison or incarcerate the prisoner in the first place; the obligation to provide medical care arose when it made those prior choices.

“The City had a comparable constitutional obligation here—one brought about by its own choices, made against a state-law backdrop. The City, of course, had no constitutional obligation to award a cable franchise or to operate public-access channels. But once the City did award a cable franchise, New York law required the City to obtain public-access channels, see supra, at 2, and to open them up as a public forum, see supra, at 9–10. That is when the City’s obligation to act in accordance with the First Amendment with respect to the channels arose. That is why, when the City handed the administration of that forum off to an agent, the Constitution followed. See supra, at 10–13.¹²

“The majority is surely correct that “when a private entity provides a forum for speech, the private entity is not ordinarily constrained by the First Amendment.” Ante, at 9. That is because the majority is not talking about constitutional forums—it is talking about spaces where private entities have simply invited others to come speak. A comedy club can decide to open its doors as wide as it wants, but it cannot appoint itself as a government agent. The difference is between providing a service of one’s own accord and being asked by the government to administer a constitutional responsibility (indeed, here, existing to do so) on the government’s behalf.¹³
¹¹ There was a time when this Court’s precedents may have portended the kind of First Amendment liability for purely private property owners that the majority spends so much time rejecting. See Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U. S. 501, 505–509 (1946) (treating a company-owned town as subject to the First Amendment); Food Employees v. Logan Valley Plaza, Inc., 391 U. S. 308, 315–320, and n. 9, 325 (1968) (extending Marsh to cover a private shopping center to the extent that it sought to restrict speech about its businesses). But the Court soon stanched that trend. See Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner, 407 U. S. 551, 561–567 (1972) (cabining Marsh and refusing to extend Logan Valley); Hudgens v. NLRB, 424 U. S. 507, 518 (1976) (making clear that “the rationale of Logan Valley did not survive” Lloyd). Ever since, this Court has been reluctant to find a “public function” when it comes to “private commercial transactions” (even if they occur against a legal or regulatory backdrop), see, e.g., Flagg Bros., Inc. v. Brooks, 436 U. S. 149, 161–163 (1978), instead requiring a closer connection between the private entity and a government or its agents, see, e.g., Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Assn., 531 U. S. 288, 298 (2001) (nonprofit interscholastic athletic association “pervasive[ly] entwine[d]” with governmental institutions and officials); Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U. S. 922, 942 (1982) (state-created system “whereby state officials [would] attach property on the ex parte application of one party to a private dispute”); see also Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, 365 U. S. 715, 723–725 (1961) (restaurant in municipal parking garage partly maintained by municipal agency); accord, ante, at 6–7. Jackson exemplifies the line of cases that supplanted cases like Logan Valley—not cases like this one.
¹² Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 419 U. S. 345 (1974), by contrast, exemplifies a type of case in which a private actor provides a service that there is no governmental obligation to provide at all. See id., at 353 (no state requirement for government to provide utility service); see also, e.g., Hudgens, 424 U. S. 507 (shopping center). In West v. Atkins, 487 U. S. 42 (1988), by contrast, the prison was obligated to provide health care in accordance with the Eighth Amendment toits prisoners once it incarcerated them, and here, the City was required to provide a public forum to its residents in accordance with the First Amendment once it granted the cable franchise. See supra, at 11–13.
¹³ Accordingly, the majority need not fear that “all private property owners and private lessees who open their property for speech [c]ould be subject to First Amendment constraints.” Ante, at 10. Those kinds of entities are not the government’s agents; MNN is. Whether such entities face “extensive regulation” or require “government licenses, government contracts, or government-granted monopolies,” ante, at 12, is immaterial, so long as they have not accepted the government’s request to fulfill the government’s duties on its behalf.
“To see more clearly the difference between the cases on which the majority fixates and the present case, leave aside the majority’s private comedy club. Imagine instead that a state college runs a comedy showcase each year, renting out a local theater and, pursuant to state regulations mandating open access to certain kinds of student activities, allowing students to sign up to perform on a first-come, first-served basis. Cf.  Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U. S. 819 (1995). After a few years, the college decides that it is tired of running the sh ow, so it hires a performing-arts nonprofit to do the job. The nonprofit prefers humor that makes fun of a certain political party, so it allows only student acts that share its views to participate. Does the majority believe that the nonprofit is indistinguishable, for purposes of state action, from a private comedy club opened by local entrepreneurs?

“I hope not. But two dangers lurk here regardless. On the one hand, if the City’s decision to outsource the channels to a private entity did render the First Amendment irrelevant, there would be substantial cause to worry about the potential abuses that could follow. Can a state university evade the First Amendment by hiring a non-profit to apportion funding to student groups? Can a city do the same by appointing a corporation to run a municipal theater? What about its parks?

“On the other hand, the majority hastens to qualify its decision, see ante, at 7, n. 1, 15, and to cabin it to the specific facts of this case, ante, at 15. Those are prudent limitations. Even so, the majority’s focus on Jackson still risks sowing confusion among the lower courts about how and when government outsourcing will render any abuses that follow beyond the reach of the Constitution. In any event, there should be no confusion here. MNN is not a private entity that ventured into the marketplace and found itself subject to government regulation. It was asked to do a job by the government and compensated accordingly. If it does not want to do that job anymore, it can stop (subject, like any other entity, to its contractual obligations). But as long as MNN continues to wield the power it was given by the government, it stands in the government’s shoes and must abide by the First Amendment like any other government actor.


“This is not a case about bigger governments and smaller individuals, ante, at 16; it is a case about principals and agents. New York City opened up a public forum on public-access channels in which it has a property interest. It asked MNN to run that public forum, and MNN accepted the job. That makes MNN subject to the First Amendment, just as if the City had decided to run the public forum itself. While the majority emphasizes that its decision is narrow and fact bound, ante, at 15, that does not make it any less misguided. It is crucial that the Court does not continue to ignore the reality, fully recognized by our precedents, that private actors who have been delegated constitutional responsibilities like this one should be accountable to the Constitution’s demands. I respectfully dissent.

One Response to “Anti-Censorship Laws DO NOT Apply To Private Enterprise”

  1. […] Anti-Censorship Laws DO NOT Apply To Private Enterprise. […]


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