Calif. Judge Declines To Ban Channel One From San Jose
In a closely watched legal test for Whittle Communications' Channel One classroom news show, a California state judge last week declined to ban the program from public schools in San Jose, likely opening the way for any public school in the state to sign up for the show.
Judge Jeremy Fogel of Santa Clara County Superior Court said he was not convinced that the inclusion of two minutes of commercials in the 12-minute daily show was illegal by itself. He refused to issue an injunction sought by state education officials to void a contract for Channel One at William C. Overfelt High School in San Jose.
However, the judge ordered that teachers and students be given the option not to show or view the program, and he retained jurisdiction over the matter to consider future evidence on the show's impact.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, along with the state parent-teacher association and two teachers at Overfelt, had sued the East Side Union High School District seeking to have its Channel One contract declared a violation of state compulsory-eduction laws because of the advertising included in the show.
Whittle, which provides television monitors, video recorders, and other equipment to schools in exchange for their delivery of the teenage audience, said Judge Fogel's decision would permit the expansion of Channel One throughout California.
The Knoxville, Tenn.-based media company had signed up fewer than 70 public schools in California, largely because of Mr. Honig's threat to cut off a portion of state education funding if the schools showed commercials to students.
"We had not made a significant effort to sign additional schools,'' said Jim Ritts, the president of network affairs for the Whittle Educational Network, which includes Channel One. The company now expects to begin signing up more schools in the state. Channel One is currently available in more than 12,000 middle and high schools across the country.
Mr. Honig pointed out in an interview that the judge had reservations about the program and left avenues open for restricting it in the future.
"Whittle is by no means out of the woods on this thing,'' Mr. Honig said. "The judge was seriously troubled on where to draw the line on commercial intrusion.''
Judge Fogel ruled on Sept. 9 that for Channel One to be shown legally in San Jose, teachers must be given the opportunity to opt out of showing it in their classrooms, students and parents must be informed in writing that the students are not required to view the program, and the school must provide a regular alternative to Channel One, such as a supervised study hall.
The judge said state law would be violated only if students were directly or indirectly coerced to view commercials. He said the two minutes of advertising on Channel One "appears trivial in a world in which the rest of students' lives is literally saturated with commercial inducements of all kinds.''
But the judge left the state's lawsuit open and said he would seek additional evidence about the impact of commercials in the classroom and whether students were coerced into watching them. He said he may appoint someone to evaluate the advertising to determine whether its impact is "incidental,'' and thus lawful.
Mr. Ritts of Whittle said the judge's restrictions were acceptable to the company and did not go beyond what is already allowed or required by its contract with schools. Under the contract, schools must show 90 percent of the Channel One programs in their entirety.
"From the get-go, we say to schools that if they have a handful of parents or teachers who don't want it, then they don't have to see it,'' he said.
He contended that if there is widespread opposition to Channel One within a school district, it usually surfaces before the school board agrees to sign up for the program.
Mr. Honig countered that "there is a huge resistance to this in the schools. I hope teachers will fight back.''
He also warned that California school districts signing contracts for Channel One still may lose a portion of their state funding if the state ultimately convinces Judge Fogel that students are coerced to watch in violation of state law.
Mr. Honig said his department is considering whether to appeal part
of Judge Fogel's decision, but then added, "I think we are going to
work with this judge'' for now.