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TURNER BROADCASTING SYSTEM v. FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION ET AL. (06/27/94)

decided: June 27, 1994.

TURNER BROADCASTING SYSTEM, INC., ET AL., APPELLANTS
v.
FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION ET AL.



ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA.

Kennedy, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Part I, the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts II-A and II-B, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Blackmun, O'connor, Scalia, Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined, the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts II-C, II-D, and III-A, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Blackmun, Stevens, and Souter, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part III-B, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Blackmun and Souter, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., filed a concurring opinion. Stevens, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. O'connor, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Scalia and Ginsburg, JJ., joined, and in Parts I and III of which Thomas, J., joined. Ginsburg, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Author: Kennedy

JUSTICE KENNEDY announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part III-B.

Sections 4 and 5 of the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992 require cable television systems to devote a portion of their channels to the transmission of local broadcast television stations. This case presents the question whether these provisions abridge the freedom of speech or of the press, in violation of the First Amendment.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted summary judgment for the United States, holding that the challenged provisions are consistent with the First Amendment. Because issues of material fact remain unresolved in the record as developed thus far, we vacate the District Court's judgment and remand the case for further proceedings.

I

A

The role of cable television in the Nation's communications system has undergone dramatic change over the past 45 years. Given the pace of technological advancement and the increasing convergence between cable and other electronic media, the cable industry today stands at the center of an ongoing telecommunications revolution with still undefined potential to affect the way we communicate and develop our intellectual resources.

The earliest cable systems were built in the late 1940's to bring clear broadcast television signals to remote or mountainous communities. The purpose was not to replace broadcast television but to enhance it. See United States v. Southwestern Cable Co., 392 U.S. 157, 161-164, 20 L. Ed. 2d 1001, 88 S. Ct. 1994 (1968); D. Brenner, M. Price, & M. Meyerson, Cable Television and Other Nonbroadcast Video § 1.02 (1992); M. Hamburg, All About Cable, ch. 1 (1979). Modern cable systems do much more than enhance the reception of nearby broadcast television stations. With the capacity to carry dozens of channels and import distant programming signals via satellite or microwave relay, today's cable systems are in direct competition with over-the-air broadcasters as an independent source of television programming.

Broadcast and cable television are distinguished by the different technologies through which they reach viewers. Broadcast stations radiate electromagnetic signals from a central transmitting antenna. These signals can be captured, in turn, by any television set within the antenna's range. Cable systems, by contrast, rely upon a physical, point-to-point connection between a transmission facility and the television sets of individual subscribers. Cable systems make this connection much like telephone companies, using cable or optical fibers strung aboveground or buried in ducts to reach the homes or businesses of subscribers. The construction of this physical infrastructure entails the use of public rights-of-way and easements and often results in the disruption of traffic on streets and other public property. As a result, the cable medium may depend for its very existence upon express permission from local governing authorities. See generally Community Communications Co. v. Boulder, 660 F.2d 1370, 1377-1378 (CA10 1981).

Cable technology affords two principal benefits over broadcast. First, it eliminates the signal interference sometimes encountered in over-the-air broadcasting and thus gives viewers undistorted reception of broadcast stations. Second, it is capable of transmitting many more channels than are available through broadcasting, giving subscribers access to far greater programming variety. More than half of the cable systems in operation today have a capacity to carry between 30 and 53 channels. 1994 Television and Cable Factbook I-69. And about 40 percent of cable subscribers are served by systems with a capacity of more than 53 channels. Ibid. Newer systems can carry hundreds of channels, and many older systems are being upgraded with fiber optic rebuilds and digital compression technology to increase channel capacity. See, e.g., Cablevision Systems Adds to Rapid Fiber Growth in Cable Systems, Communications Daily, pp. 6-7 (Feb. 26, 1993).

The cable television industry includes both cable operators (those who own the physical cable network and transmit the cable signal to the viewer) and cable programmers (those who produce television programs and sell or license them to cable operators). In some cases, cable operators have acquired ownership of cable programmers, and vice versa. Although cable operators may create some of their own programming, most of their programming is drawn from outside sources. These outside sources include not only local or distant broadcast stations, but also the many national and regional cable programming networks that have emerged in recent years, such as CNN, MTV, ESPN, TNT, C-Span, The Family Channel, Nickelodeon, Arts and Entertainment, Black Entertainment Television, CourtTV, The Discovery Channel, American Movie Classics, Comedy Central, The Learning Channel, and The Weather Channel. Once the cable operator has selected the programming sources, the cable system functions, in essence, as a conduit for the speech of others, transmitting it on a continuous and unedited basis to subscribers. See Brenner, Cable Television and the Freedom of Expression, 1988 Duke L. J. 329, 339 ("For the most part, cable personnel do not review any of the material provided by cable networks. . . . Cable systems have no conscious control over program services provided by others").

In contrast to commercial broadcast stations, which transmit signals at no charge to viewers and generate revenues by selling time to advertisers, cable systems charge subscribers a monthly fee for the right to receive cable programming and rely to a lesser extent on advertising. In most instances, cable subscribers choose the stations they will receive by selecting among various plans, or "tiers," of cable service. In a typical offering, the basic tier consists of local broadcast stations plus a number of cable programming networks selected by the cable operator. For an additional cost, subscribers can obtain channels devoted to particular subjects or interests, such as recent-release feature movies, sports, children's programming, sexually explicit programming, and the like. Many cable systems also offer pay-per-view service, which allows an individual subscriber to order and pay a one-time fee to see a single movie or program at a set time of the day. See J. Goodale, All About Cable: Legal and Business Aspects of Cable and Pay Television § 5.05[2] (1989); Brenner, supra, at 334, n. 22.

B

On October 5, 1992, Congress overrode a Presidential veto to enact the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, Pub. L. 102-385, 106 Stat. 1460 (1992 Cable Act or Act). Among other things, the Act subjects the cable industry to rate regulation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and by municipal franchising authorities; prohibits municipalities from awarding exclusive franchises to cable operators; imposes various restrictions on cable programmers that are affiliated with cable operators; and directs the FCC to develop and promulgate regulations imposing minimum technical standards for cable operators. At issue in this case is the constitutionality of the so-called must-carry provisions, contained in §§ 4 and 5 of the Act, which require cable operators to carry the signals of a specified number of local broadcast television stations.

Section 4 requires carriage of "local commercial television stations," defined to include all full power television broadcasters, other than those qualifying as "noncommercial educational" stations under § 5, that operate within the same television market as the cable system. § 4, 47 U.S.C. §§ 534(b)(1)(B), (h)(1)(A) (1988 ed., Supp. IV).*fn1 Cable systems with more than 12 active channels, and more than 300 subscribers, are required to set aside up to one-third of their channels for commercial broadcast stations that request carriage. § 534(b)(1)(B). Cable systems with more than 300 subscribers, but only 12 or fewer active channels, must carry the signals of three commercial broadcast stations. § 534(b)(1)(A).*fn2

If there are fewer broadcasters requesting carriage than slots made available under the Act, the cable operator is obligated to carry only those broadcasters who make the request. If, however, there are more requesting broadcast stations than slots available, the cable operator is permitted to choose which of these stations it will carry. § 534(b)(2).*fn3 The broadcast signals carried under this provision must be transmitted on a continuous, uninterrupted basis, § 534(b)(3), and must be placed in the same numerical channel position as when broadcast over the air. § 534(b)(6). Further, subject to a few exceptions, a cable operator may not charge a fee for carrying broadcast signals in fulfillment of its must-carry obligations. § 534(b)(10).

Section 5 of the Act imposes similar requirements regarding the carriage of local public broadcast television stations, referred to in the Act as local "noncommercial educational television stations." 47 U.S.C. § 535(a) (1988 ed., Supp. IV).*fn4 A cable system with 12 or fewer channels must carry one of these stations; a system of between 13 and 36 channels must carry between one and three; and a system with more than 36 channels must carry each local public broadcast station requesting carriage. §§ 535(b)(2)(A), (b)(3)(A), (b)(3)(D). The Act requires a cable operator to import distant signals in certain circumstances but provides protection against substantial duplication of local noncommercial educational stations. See §§ 535(b)(3)(B), (e). As with commercial broadcast stations, § 5 requires cable system operators to carry the program schedule of the public broadcast station in its entirety and at its same over-the-air channel position. §§ 535(g)(1), (g)(5).

Taken together, therefore, §§ 4 and 5 subject all but the smallest cable systems nationwide to must-carry obligations, and confer must-carry privileges on all full power broadcasters operating within the same television market as a qualified cable system.

C

Congress enacted the 1992 Cable Act after conducting three years of hearings on the structure and operation of the cable television industry. See S. Rep. No. 102-92, pp. 3-4 (1991) (describing hearings); H. R. Rep. No. 102-628, p. 74 (1992) (same). The conclusions Congress drew from its factfinding process are recited in the text of the Act itself. See §§ 2(a)(1)-(21). In brief, Congress found that the physical characteristics of cable transmission, compounded by the increasing concentration of economic power in the cable industry, are endangering the ability of over-the-air broadcast television stations to compete for a viewing audience and thus for necessary operating revenues. Congress determined that regulation of the market for video programming was necessary to correct this competitive imbalance.

In particular, Congress found that over 60 percent of the households with television sets subscribe to cable, § 2(a)(3), and for these households cable has replaced over-the-air broadcast television as the primary provider of video programming. § 2(a)(17). This is so, Congress found, because "most subscribers to cable television systems do not or cannot maintain antennas to receive broadcast television services, do not have input selector switches to convert from a cable to antenna reception system, or cannot otherwise receive broadcast television services." Ibid. In addition, Congress concluded that due to "local franchising requirements and the extraordinary expense of constructing more than one cable television system to serve a particular geographic area," the overwhelming majority of cable operators exercise a monopoly over cable service. § 2(a)(2). "The result," Congress determined, "is undue market power for the cable operator as compared to that of consumers and video programmers." Ibid.

According to Congress, this market position gives cable operators the power and the incentive to harm broadcast competitors. The power derives from the cable operator's ability, as owner of the transmission facility, to "terminate the retransmission of the broadcast signal, refuse to carry new signals, or reposition a broadcast signal to a disadvantageous channel position." § 2(a)(15). The incentive derives from the economic reality that "cable television systems and broadcast television stations increasingly compete for television advertising revenues." § 2(a)(14). By refusing carriage of broadcasters' signals, cable operators, as a practical matter, can reduce the number of households that have access to the broadcasters' programming, and thereby capture advertising dollars that would otherwise go to broadcast stations. § 2(a)(15).

Congress found, in addition, that increased vertical integration in the cable industry is making it even harder for broadcasters to secure carriage on cable systems, because cable operators have a financial incentive to favor their affiliated programmers. § 2(a)(5). Congress also determined that the cable industry is characterized by horizontal concentration, with many cable operators sharing common ownership. This has resulted in greater "barriers to entry for new programmers and a reduction in the number of media voices available to consumers." § 2(a)(4).

In light of these technological and economic conditions, Congress concluded that unless cable operators are required to carry local broadcast stations, "there is a substantial likelihood that . . . additional local broadcast signals will be deleted, repositioned, or not carried," § 2(a)(15); the "marked shift in market share" from broadcast to cable will continue to erode the advertising revenue base which sustains free local broadcast television, §§ 2(a)(13)-(14); and that, as a consequence, "the economic viability of free local broadcast television and its ability to originate quality local programming will be seriously jeopardized." § 2(a)(16).

D

Soon after the Act became law, appellants filed these five consolidated actions in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against the United States and the Federal Communications Commission (hereinafter referred to collectively as the Government), challenging the constitutionality of the must-carry provisions. Appellants, plaintiffs below, are numerous cable programmers and cable operators. After additional parties intervened, a three-judge District Court convened under 28 U.S.C. § 2284 to hear the actions. 1992 Cable Act § 23, 47 U.S.C. § 555 (c)(1) (1988 ed., Supp. IV). Each of the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment; several intervenor-defendants filed cross-motions for summary judgment; and the Government filed a cross-motion to dismiss. Although the Government had not asked for summary judgment, the District Court, in a divided opinion, granted summary judgment in favor of the Government and the other intervenor-defendants, ruling that the must-carry provisions are consistent with the First Amendment. 819 F. Supp. 32 (DC 1993).

The court found that in enacting the must-carry provisions, Congress employed "its regulatory powers over the economy to impose order upon a market in dysfunction." Id., at 40. The court characterized the 1992 Cable Act as "simply industry-specific antitrust and fair trade practice regulatory legislation," ibid., and said that the must-carry requirements "are essentially economic regulation designed to create competitive balance in the video industry as a whole, and to redress the effects of cable operators' anti-competitive practices." Ibid. The court rejected appellants' contention that the must-carry requirements warrant strict scrutiny as a content-based regulation, concluding that both the commercial and public broadcast provisions "are, in intent as well as form, unrelated (in all but the most recondite sense) to the content of any messages that [the] cable operators, broadcasters, and programmers have in contemplation to deliver." Ibid. The court proceeded to sustain the must-carry provisions under the intermediate standard of scrutiny set forth in United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 20 L. Ed. 2d 672, 88 S. Ct. 1673 (1968), concluding that the preservation of local broadcasting is an important governmental interest, and that the must-carry provisions are sufficiently tailored to serve that interest. 819 F. Supp., at 45-47.

Judge Williams dissented. He acknowledged the "very real problem" that "cable systems control access 'bottlenecks' to an important communications medium," id., at 57, but concluded that Congress may not address that problem by extending access rights only to broadcast television stations. In his view, the must-carry rules are content based, and thus subject to strict scrutiny, because they require cable operators to carry speech they might otherwise choose to exclude, and because Congress' decision to grant favorable access to broadcast programmers rested "in part, but quite explicitly, on a finding about their content." Id., at 58. Applying strict scrutiny, Judge Williams determined that the interests advanced in support of the law are inadequate to justify it. While assuming "as an abstract matter" that the interest in preserving access to free television is compelling, he found "no evidence that this access is in jeopardy." Id., at 62. Likewise, he concluded that the rules are insufficiently tailored to the asserted interest in programming diversity because cable operators "now carry the vast majority of local stations," and thus to the extent the rules have any effect at all, "it will be only to replace the mix chosen by cablecasters--whose livelihoods depend largely on satisfying audience demand--with a mix derived from congressional dictate." Id., at 61.

This direct appeal followed, see § 23, 47 U.S.C. § 555 (c)(1) (1988 ed., Supp. IV), and we noted probable jurisdiction. 509 U.S. (1993).

II

There can be no disagreement on an initial premise: Cable programmers and cable operators engage in and transmit speech, and they are entitled to the protection of the speech and press provisions of the First Amendment. Leathers v. Medlock, 499 U.S. 439, 444, 113 L. Ed. 2d 494, 111 S. Ct. 1438 (1991). Through "original programming or by exercising editorial discretion over which stations or programs to include in its repertoire," cable programmers and operators "seek to communicate messages on a wide variety of topics and in a wide variety of formats." Los Angeles v. Preferred Communications, Inc., 476 U.S. 488, 494, 90 L. Ed. 2d 480, 106 S. Ct. 2034 (1986). By requiring cable systems to set aside a portion of their channels for local broadcasters, the must-carry rules regulate cable speech in two respects: The rules reduce the number of channels over which cable operators exercise unfettered control, and they render it more difficult for cable programmers to compete for carriage on the limited channels remaining. Nevertheless, because not every interference with speech triggers the same degree of scrutiny under the First Amendment, we must decide at the outset the level of scrutiny applicable to the must-carry provisions.

A

We address first the Government's contention that regulation of cable television should be analyzed under the same First Amendment standard that applies to regulation of broadcast television. It is true that our cases have permitted more intrusive regulation of broadcast speakers than of speakers in other media. Compare Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367, 23 L. Ed. 2d 371, 89 S. Ct. 1794 (1969) (television), and National Broadcasting Co. v. United States, 319 U.S. 190, 87 L. Ed. 1344, 63 S. Ct. 997 (1943) (radio), with Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241, 41 L. Ed. 2d 730, 94 S. Ct. 2831 (1974) (print), and Riley v. National Federation of Blind of N.C., Inc., 487 U.S. 781, 101 L. Ed. 2d 669, 108 S. Ct. 2667 (1988) (personal solicitation). But the rationale for applying a less rigorous standard of First Amendment scrutiny to broadcast regulation, whatever its validity in the cases elaborating it, does not apply in the context of cable regulation.

The justification for our distinct approach to broadcast regulation rests upon the unique physical limitations of the broadcast medium. See FCC v. League of Women Voters of Cal., 468 U.S. 364, 377, 82 L. Ed. 2d 278, 104 S. Ct. 3106 (1984); Red Lion, supra, at 388-389, 396-399; National Broadcasting Co., 319 U.S., at 226. As a general matter, there are more would-be broadcasters than frequencies available in the electromagnetic spectrum. And if two broadcasters were to attempt to transmit over the same frequency in the same locale, they would interfere with one another's signals, so that neither could be heard at all. Id., at 212. The scarcity of broadcast frequencies thus required the establishment of some regulatory mechanism to divide the electromagnetic spectrum and assign specific frequencies to particular broadcasters. See FCC v. League of Women Voters, supra, at 377. ("The fundamental distinguishing characteristic of the new medium of broadcasting . . . is that broadcast frequencies are a scarce resource [that] must be portioned out among applicants") (internal quotation marks omitted); FCC v. National Citizens Comm. for Broadcasting, 436 U.S. 775, 799, 56 L. Ed. 2d 697, 98 S. Ct. 2096 (1978). In addition, the inherent physical limitation on the number of speakers who may use the broadcast medium has been thought to require some adjustment in traditional First Amendment analysis to permit the Government to place limited content restraints, and impose certain affirmative obligations, on broadcast licensees. Red Lion, 395 U.S., at 390. As we said in Red Lion, "where there are substantially more individuals who want to broadcast than there are frequencies to allocate, it is idle to posit an unabridgeable First Amendment right to broadcast comparable to the right of every individual to speak, write, or publish." Id., at 388; see also Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. v. Democratic National Committee, 412 U.S. 94, 101, 36 L. Ed. 2d 772, 93 S. Ct. 2080 (1973).

Although courts and commentators have criticized the scarcity rationale since its inception,*fn5 we have declined to question its continuing validity as support for our broadcast jurisprudence, see FCC v. League of Women Voters, supra, at 376, n. 11, and see no reason to do so here. The broadcast cases are inapposite in the present context because cable television does not suffer from the inherent limitations that characterize the broadcast medium. Indeed, given the rapid advances in fiber optics and digital compression technology, soon there may be no practical limitation on the number of speakers who may use the cable medium. Nor is there any danger of physical interference between two cable speakers attempting to share the same channel. In light of these fundamental technological differences between broadcast and cable transmission, application of the more relaxed standard of scrutiny adopted in Red Lion and the other broadcast cases is inapt when determining the First Amendment validity of cable regulation. See Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corp., 463 U.S. 60, 74, 77 L. Ed. 2d 469, 103 S. Ct. 2875 (1983) ("Our decisions have recognized that the special interest of the Federal Government in regulation of the broadcast media does not readily translate into a justification for regulation of other means of communication") (footnote omitted).

This is not to say that the unique physical characteristics of cable transmission should be ignored when determining the constitutionality of regulations affecting cable speech. They should not. See infra, at 32-33. But whatever relevance these physical characteristics may have in the evaluation of particular cable regulations, they do not require the alteration of settled principles of our First Amendment jurisprudence.

Although the Government acknowledges the substantial technological differences between broadcast and cable, see Brief for Federal Appellees 22, it advances a second argument for application of the Red Lion framework to cable regulation. It asserts that the foundation of our broadcast jurisprudence is not the physical limitations of the electromagnetic spectrum, but rather the "market dysfunction" that characterizes the broadcast market. Because the cable market is beset by a similar dysfunction, the Government maintains, the Red Lion standard of review should also apply to cable. While we agree that the cable market suffers certain structural impediments, the Government's argument is flawed in two respects. First, as discussed above, the special physical characteristics of broadcast transmission, not the economic characteristics of the broadcast market, are what underlies our broadcast jurisprudence. See League of Women Voters, supra, at 377; National Citizens Comm. for Broadcasting, supra, at 799; Red Lion, supra, at 390. Second, the mere assertion of dysfunction or failure in a speech market, without more, is not sufficient to shield a speech regulation from the First Amendment standards applicable to nonbroadcast media. See, e.g., Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652, 657-658, 108 L. Ed. 2d 652, 110 S. Ct. 1391 (1990); Federal Election Comm'n v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc., 479 U.S. 238, 256-259, 93 L. Ed. 2d 539, 107 S. Ct. 616 (1986); Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S., at 248-258.

By a related course of reasoning, the Government and some appellees maintain that the must-carry provisions are nothing more than industry-specific antitrust legislation, and thus warrant rational basis scrutiny under this Court's "precedents governing legislative efforts to correct market failure in a market whose commodity is speech," such as Associated Press v. United States, 326 U.S. 1, 89 L. Ed. 2013, 65 S. Ct. 1416 (1945), and Lorain Journal Co. v. United States, 342 U.S. 143, 96 L. Ed. 162, 72 S. Ct. 181 (1951). See Brief for Federal Appellees 17. This contention is unavailing. Associated Press and Lorain Journal both involved actions against members of the press brought under the Sherman Antitrust Act, a law of general application. But while the enforcement of a generally applicable law may or may not be subject to heightened scrutiny under the First Amendment, compare Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., 501 U.S. 663, 670, 115 L. Ed. 2d 586, 111 S. Ct. 2513 (1991), with Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc., 501 U.S. 560, 566-567, 115 L. Ed. 2d 504, 111 S. Ct. 2456 (1991), laws that single out the press, or certain elements thereof, for special treatment "pose a particular danger of abuse by the State," Arkansas Writers' Project, Inc. v. Ragland, 481 U.S. 221, 228, 95 L. Ed. 2d 209, 107 S. Ct. 1722 (1987), and so are always subject to at least some degree of heightened First Amendment scrutiny. See Preferred Communications, supra, at 496 ("Where a law is subjected to a colorable First Amendment challenge, the rule of rationality which will sustain legislation against other constitutional challenges typically does not have the same controlling force"). Because the must-carry provisions impose special obligations upon cable operators and special burdens upon cable programmers, some measure of heightened First Amendment scrutiny is demanded. See Minneapolis Star & Tribune, supra, at 583.

B

At the heart of the First Amendment lies the principle that each person should decide for him or herself the ideas and beliefs deserving of expression, consideration, and adherence. Our political system and cultural life rest upon this ideal. See Leathers v. Medlock, 499 U.S., at 449 (citing Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 24, 29 L. Ed. 2d 284, 91 S. Ct. 1780 (1971)); West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638, 640-642, 87 L. Ed. 1628, 63 S. Ct. 1178 (1943). Government action that stifles speech on account of its message, or that requires the utterance of a particular message favored by the Government, contravenes this essential right. Laws of this sort pose the inherent risk that the Government seeks not to advance a legitimate regulatory goal, but to suppress unpopular ideas or information or manipulate the public debate through coercion rather than persuasion. These restrictions "raise the specter that the Government may effectively drive certain ideas or viewpoints from the marketplace." Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of the New York State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U.S. , (1991) (slip op., at 9).

For these reasons, the First Amendment, subject only to narrow and well-understood exceptions, does not countenance governmental control over the content of messages expressed by private individuals. R. A. V. v. St. Paul, 505 U.S. , (1992) (slip op., at 4); Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414, 105 L. Ed. 2d 342, 109 S. Ct. 2533 (1989). Our precedents thus apply the most exacting scrutiny to regulations that suppress, disadvantage, or impose differential burdens upon speech because of its content. See Simon & Schuster, 502 U.S., at (slip op., at 11); id., at (KENNEDY, J., concurring in judgment) (slip op., at 2-3); Perry Education Assn. v. Perry Local Educators' Assn., 460 U.S. 37, 45, 74 L. Ed. 2d 794, 103 S. Ct. 948 (1983). Laws that compel speakers to utter or distribute speech bearing a particular message are subject to the same rigorous scrutiny. See Riley v. National Federation for Blind of N.C., Inc., 487 U.S., at 798; West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, supra. In contrast, regulations that are unrelated to the content of speech are subject to an intermediate level of scrutiny, see Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 293, 82 L. Ed. 2d 221, 104 S. Ct. 3065 (1984), because in most cases they pose a less substantial risk of excising certain ideas or viewpoints from the public dialogue.

Deciding whether a particular regulation is content-based or content-neutral is not always a simple task. We have said that the "principal inquiry in determining content-neutrality . . . is whether the government has adopted a regulation of speech because of [agreement or] disagreement with the message it conveys." Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781, 791, 105 L. Ed. 2d 661, 109 S. Ct. 2746 (1989). See R. A. V., 505 U.S., at (slip op., at 8) ("The government may not regulate [speech] based on hostility--or favoritism--towards the underlying message expressed"). The purpose, or justification, of a regulation will often be evident on its face. See Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U.S. 474, 481, 101 L. Ed. 2d 420, 108 S. Ct. 2495 (1988). But while a content-based purpose may be sufficient in certain circumstances to show that a regulation is content-based, it is not necessary to such a showing in all cases. Cf. Simon & Schuster, supra, at (slip op., at 10) ("'illicit legislative intent is not the sine qua non of a violation of the First Amendment'") (quoting Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Comm'r of Revenue, 460 U.S. 575, 592, 75 L. Ed. 2d 295, 103 S. Ct. 1365 (1983)). Nor will the mere assertion of a content-neutral purpose be enough to save a law which, on its face, discriminates based on content. Arkansas Writers' Project, supra, at 231-232; Carey v. Brown, 447 U.S. 455, 464-469, 65 L. Ed. 2d 263, 100 S. Ct. 2286 (1980).

As a general rule, laws that by their terms distinguish favored speech from disfavored speech on the basis of the ideas or views expressed are content-based. See, e.g., Burson v. Freeman, 504 U.S. , (1992) (slip op., at 5) ("Whether individuals may exercise their free-speech rights near polling places depends entirely on whether their speech is related to a political campaign"); Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312, 318-319, 99 L. Ed. 2d 333, 108 S. Ct. 1157 (1988) (plurality opinion) (whether municipal ordinance permits individuals to "picket in front of a foreign embassy depends entirely upon whether their picket signs are critical of the foreign government or not"). By contrast, laws that confer benefits or impose burdens on speech without reference to the ideas or views expressed are in most instances content-neutral. See, e.g. City Council of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466 U.S. 789, 804, 80 L. Ed. 2d 772, 104 S. Ct. 2118 (1984) (ordinance prohibiting the posting of signs on public property "is neutral--indeed it is silent--concerning any speaker's point of view"); Heffron v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc., 452 U.S. 640, 649, 69 L. Ed. 2d 298, 101 S. Ct. 2559 (1981) (State Fair regulation requiring that sales and solicitations take place at designated locations "applies evenhandedly to all who wish to distribute and sell written materials or to solicit funds").

C

Insofar as they pertain to the carriage of full power broadcasters, the must-carry rules, on their face, impose burdens and confer benefits without reference to the content of speech.*fn6 Although the provisions interfere with cable operators' editorial discretion by compelling them to offer carriage to a certain minimum number of broadcast stations, the extent of the interference does not depend upon the content of the cable operators' programming. The rules impose obligations upon all operators, save those with fewer than 300 subscribers, regardless of the programs or stations they now offer or have offered in the past. Nothing in the Act imposes a restriction, penalty, or burden by reason of the views, programs, or stations the cable operator has selected or will select. The number of channels a cable operator must set aside depends only on the operator's channel capacity, see 47 U.S.C. §§ 534(b)(1), 535(b)(2)-(3) (1988 ed., Supp. IV); hence, an operator cannot avoid or mitigate its obligations under the Act by altering the programming it offers to subscribers. Cf. Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S., at 256-257 (newspaper may avoid access obligations by refraining from speech critical of political candidates).

The must-carry provisions also burden cable programmers by reducing the number of channels for which they can compete. But, again, this burden is unrelated to content, for it extends to all cable programmers irrespective of the programming they choose to offer viewers. Cf. Boos, supra, at 319 (individuals may picket in front of a foreign embassy so long as their picket signs are not critical of the foreign government). And finally, the privileges conferred by the must-carry provisions are also unrelated to content. The rules benefit all full power broadcasters who request carriage--be they commercial or noncommercial, independent or network-affiliated, English or Spanish language, religious or secular. The aggregate effect of the rules is thus to make every full power commercial and noncommercial broadcaster eligible for must-carry, provided only that the broadcaster operates within the same television market as a cable system.

It is true that the must-carry provisions distinguish between speakers in the television programming market. But they do so based only upon the manner in which speakers transmit their messages to viewers, and not upon the messages they carry: Broadcasters, which transmit over the airwaves, are favored, while cable programmers, which do not, are disfavored. Cable operators, too, are burdened by the carriage obligations, but only because they control access to the cable conduit. So long as they are not a subtle ...


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