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High Court Takes Case on 'Indecent' Cable Shows

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to hear a constitutional challenge to a 1992 federal law that encourages cable-television systems to restrict indecent programming.

The provisions at issue were proposed by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., as an amendment to a broad 1992 cable-television law. Sen. Helms cited the need to protect children from sexually explicit programming appearing on so-called leased-access channels, as well as on channels set aside for public, governmental, and educational use. An earlier federal law had barred cable-system operators from exercising any editorial control over such channels.

The high court on Nov. 13 agreed to hear the challenge of Denver Area Educational Telecommunications Consortium Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission (Case No. 95-124).

The consortium, which leases cable-television time to run what it calls "The '90s Channel," said its programming on such subjects as gynecology, gay rights, aids, and prostitution could be restricted by the law, which it says violates the guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way are participating in the challenge.

The Clinton Administration is defending the law, which authorizes cable operators to prohibit or restrict indecent programming on the affected channels. Congress defined indecent programming as that depicting "sexual or excretory activities or organs in a patently offensive manner as measured by contemporary community standards."

The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the provisions earlier this year. In a 7-4 ruling, the court said the law does not "command" cable operators to prohibit indecent programming. Any prohibitions would be the result of private decisions and not "state action," and thus the First Amendment would not be violated, the court held.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case early next year.

Welfare-Reform Impact

States are not evaluating the impact of their welfare experiments on children, even though young people constitute two-thirds of all welfare recipients, the National Center for Children in Poverty concludes in a recent report.

According to the children's-advocacy group, which is based at Columbia University's school of public health in New York City, 38 states have received waivers from federal laws that allow them to alter their welfare programs. Variations include putting time limits on cash assistance, changing eligibility requirements, and offering cash incentives to encourage work and school attendance or to delay childbearing.

But states are not keeping track of whether these policies help or hurt children's well-being, says the report, "State Welfare Waiver Evaluations: How Will They Increase Our Understanding of the Impact of Welfare Reform on Children?," which was released at a news conference this month.

"President Clinton's goal of welfare reform that is 'tough on work' and 'fair on children' is impossible to achieve unless we know much more about how stringent work programs affect children," Ann Collins, a co-author of the study, said in a statement.

Copies of the report are $10, prepaid, from the National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University School of Public Health, 154 Haven Ave., New York, N.Y. 10032; (212) 927-8793.

D.C. Schools

A proposal to give federally financed tuition vouchers to students in the District of Columbia remained a sticking point late last week as a House-Senate conference committee began negotiations on the city's budget.

The House proposal would provide Washington's low-income children with "education scholarships" of up to $3,000 for use at public, parochial, or nonsectarian private schools. It was given a cold reception by the five senators on the committee, all of whom have voted against voucher proposals in the past. (See Education Week, Nov. 15, 1995.)

Several Senate leaders also opposed provisions in the House bill that would block the city from paying for abortions and repeal an ordinance allowing city workers to buy insurance for their nonmarital domestic partners.

House members opposed a Senate provision that would keep the president and members of Congress from being paid while the federal government is shut down.

Despite an overall atmosphere of chaos triggered by the federal budget crisis, lawmakers have reconciled many aspects of the two chambers' budget plans for the capital city. Talks were set to continue late last week.

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