Arkansas Educational Television Commission. v. Forbes

523 U.S. 666, 118 S.Ct. 1633, 140 L.Ed.2d 875 (1998)

Quick Summary

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The Arkansas Educational Television Commission (defendant) excluding Ralph Forbes (plaintiff), an independent congressional candidate, from a televised debate. Forbes claimed this exclusion violated his First Amendment rights.

The issue presented to the Supreme Court was whether this exclusion constituted a First Amendment violation. The Court concluded that it did not, as AETC’s decision was a reasonable and viewpoint-neutral exercise of journalistic discretion within a nonpublic forum.

Facts of the Case

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The Arkansas Educational Television Commission (AETC) (defendant), a state-run public television broadcaster, organized a series of political debates between Republican and Democratic candidates for Arkansas congressional offices in 1992. Independent candidates were not included. Ralph Forbes (plaintiff), an independent candidate, challenged his exclusion from the debate, arguing it violated the First Amendment.

The case ascended through the judicial system, with the lower courts providing mixed rulings on whether Forbes had a constitutional right to participate in the debates.

Forbes’ exclusion was based on AETC’s judgment that he lacked substantial campaign organization and voter support, and was not considered a serious candidate by the media. These determinations were made in collaboration with the Associated Press’ Arkansas Bureau Chief, Bill Simmons, and were not influenced by Forbes’ political views.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Forbes filed suit against AETC in federal district court seeking injunctive and declaratory relief, as well as damages.
  2. The district court denied preliminary injunction and later dismissed the action for failure to state a claim.
  3. The Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of the First Amendment claim and remanded.
  4. Upon remand, the District Court found the debate to be a nonpublic forum and entered judgment for AETC after a jury found no viewpoint discrimination.
  5. The Court of Appeals reversed again, holding the debate was a public forum open to all ballot-qualified candidates.
  6. AETC appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether a state-owned public television broadcaster’s exclusion of an independent candidate from a candidate debate violates the First Amendment.

Rule of Law

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In general, public broadcasters are not required to allow third-party access to their programming under the First Amendment, but candidate debates are an exception where constitutional constraints apply. Even so, broadcasters can exclude candidates from debates in a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral exercise of journalistic discretion.

Reasoning and Analysis

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The Supreme Court determined that AETC’s debate was not a traditional public forum or a designated public forum but rather a nonpublic forum. The Court noted that AETC did not open the debate to all potential speakers; instead, it selectively invited candidates based on factors such as public support and seriousness as a candidate, similar to how charities are selected for government charity drives.

The Court reasoned that applying public forum principles too broadly to broadcasting would undermine journalistic freedom and could lead to less speech if broadcasters chose to avoid controversy by not hosting debates. The Court found AETC’s exclusion of Forbes reasonable and viewpoint-neutral, based on objective criteria related to his campaign’s lack of support and seriousness, thereby aligning with First Amendment protections.


Conclusion Icon

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision, concluding that AETC’s exclusion of Forbes from the debate did not violate the First Amendment since it was a reasonable exercise of journalistic discretion within a nonpublic forum.

Dissenting Opinions

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Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg, challenging the majority’s view on the nature of the forum and the broadcaster’s discretion in excluding candidates from debates.

Key Takeaways

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  1. Public broadcasters generally have wide editorial freedom and are not compelled by the First Amendment to provide access to all speakers.
  2. Candidate debates on public television are considered nonpublic forums; thus, broadcasters can exclude candidates based on reasonable, viewpoint-neutral criteria.
  3. AETC’s exclusion of Forbes was based on his lack of voter support and campaign organization rather than his political viewpoints.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What defines a nonpublic forum, and how does this designation affect free speech rights?

A nonpublic forum is government property that is not by tradition or designation a venue for public communication. Restrictions on speech in such a forum are examined for reasonableness and viewpoint neutrality. The government has more leeway to control access and can reserve the property for a particular use, as long as the restrictions do not suppress a viewpoint on the basis of ideology.

  • For example: A military base, where speech can be restricted to preserve the base’s functional purpose, allowing only certain groups to hold events if they align with the base’s activities.

How does the state differentiate between viewpoint discrimination and legitimate selection criteria when regulating speech in a nonpublic forum?

The state differentiates by establishing objective criteria unrelated to content that serves a rational government interest. Viewpoint discrimination occurs when the state’s regulation or exclusion of speech is motivated by disagreement with the speaker’s ideology. Legitimate selection criteria would involve considerations such as security, administrative convenience, or preserving the property’s intended purpose without regard to the speaker’s perspective on an issue.

  • For example: A public school may allow community groups to rent its auditorium for events but can exclude groups that would be disruptive to school operations, irrespective of the group’s ideology.

In what ways may journalistic discretion in public broadcasting be applied without violating First Amendment rights?

Journalistic discretion in public broadcasting is exercised appropriately when it adheres to viewpoint-neutral judgments based on professional standards. This includes decisions based on newsworthiness, informational value, and audience interest. It should not censor particular viewpoints or favor one side of a debate but rather aim at presenting balanced coverage in line with journalistic ethics.

  • For example: A public broadcaster may choose to focus on political candidates who have demonstrated significant public support through objective measures (e.g., polling data), while not including those who lack such indicators, regardless of their political positions.


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