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Schools must offer option to Channel One. California county judge refuses state school superintendent's bid to ban commercial tv from schools, but says student viewing must be voluntary.

California county judge refuses state school superintendent's bid to ban commercial tv from schools, but says student viewing must be voluntary

A state official lost a bid to ban Channel One from California schools when a judge ruled the television news and advertising program neither violates any law nor is compulsory for teachers and students.

However, in his Sept. 9 decision, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Jeremy Fogel said schools must formally advise teachers, students and parents of their right to tune out of Channel One.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who sought an injunction to ban the 12-minUte program, appeared to consider Judge Fogel's stipulations at least a partial victory. On the other hand, Whittle executive Jim Ritts hailed the ruling as a complete vindication of Channel One's right to be in the classroom.

Honig had filed the highly publicized suit against Whittle and the East Side Union High School District in San Jose. By targeting Overfelt High School there, he hoped to remove Channel One legally from the 67 California public schools using it and prevent any new contracts with Whittle.

The Knoxville-based Whittle company provides free equipment for Channel One to schools if they agree to broadcast at least nine of 10 shows to students. Programming consists of 10 minutes of what Whittle calls "news and information" and two minutes of commercials. Honig, who has declared that "Our students' minds are not for sale," charges that Channel One airs only two minutes of actual news, filling the rest of the 10 minutes with "feature stories, weeks or months old; quizzes; music; hellos; goodbyes, and opening and closing sequences."

Whittle claims that nearly 12,000 schools nationwide are using Channel One, which gives them a valuable resource they normally would not have because of budget limitations.

Judge Fogel rejected Honig's assertion that the school district is violating California law by requiring students to view commercial advertising during school hours.

"Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that Overfelt teachers... are directly forced or coerced to use Channel One in their classrooms or that students are forced to watch either the commercial or non-commercial portions of the programming ," he said.

However, Fogel conceded that Honig' s suit raised a valid fear of "indirect coercion" in connection with a Channel One contract. He pointed out that the program is shown only at class hours and not at recess or lunch periods "when students would have to make an active choice to watch them."

Although pupils are advised that watching Channel One is voluntary, "there is considerable doubt... whether the alternatives to viewing offered... the students are reasonably equal in terms of the physical resources and supervision incident to them," the judge observed.

Fogel's order imposed these requirements on the school district:

* At the beginning of each semester, each teacher must be advised in writing of his or her option not to use Channel One and of the specific terms of the school's contract with Whittle.

* Each student and parent also must receive a written notice of their choice of viewing or not viewing the tv program.

* A school must provide a regular, structured, supervised alternative to Channel One, such as silent reading in a separate room.

Fogel added he will retain jurisdiction in the case and might name an expert to evaluate the impact of Channel One's advertising on students.

In concluding, the judge declared: "California's public educational system faces an unprecedented fiscal emergency which poses a particularly dire threat to poor school districts with a limited tax base. Creative efforts by such districts to provide better resources and curriculum enrichment... are highly commendable and should be the subject of judiCial intervention only in the most compelling circumstances.

"At the same time, the very same emergency could in absence of limiting principles lead to serious abuses such as sale of classroom time for advertising as a means of obtaining books or other instructional materials a district could not otherwise afford."

Fogel rapped California for failing to furnish "adequate and prudent support for its public schools."

Ritts, Whittle's president of network affairs, told E&P that the provisions in Fogel's ruling merely formalizes the company's arrangement with schools.

"Nobody is forced to show or watch the channel," Ritts said. "The contract states that teachers or students may opt out of the programming ."

He cited a clause which permits the school, at its discretion, to develop procedures to accommodate students who do not wish to watch Channel One or whose parents object to the viewing.

In an interview, Overfelt principal Elias Chamorro confirmed Ritts' statement, observing that Channel One is voluntary for both students and teachers.

He called Fogel's ruling "a victory for all California schools and an acknowledgment that school boards, which authorize Channel One, are made up of responsible individuals."

In a statement, Honig said, "This is the first time [that we know of] that Channel One has been reined in by a state court. Our experience has been that the more people know about Channel One with its compulsory commercials during class time, the less they like it. One of the most encouraging aspects of today's opinion is that Judge Fogel retains jurisdiction, may appoint an impartial monitor to gather facts at the school, and may eventually order Channel One turned off."

Channel One is seen by some newspaper people as a threat to future readership and a formidable competitor to Newspaper in Education programs.

Last year, Roger S. Kintzel, publisher of the Austin (Texas) Daily American, warned that Channel One and other commercially sponsored in-school tv programs are getting potentially future newspaper readers "hooked on video news."

He urged the Audit Bureau of Circulations to help get more newspapers into the schools at a lower price by eliminating its rule that school subscriptions must be sold at 50% of the home-delivered or single-copy rate.

One NIE director who is not alarmed by Judge Fogel's ruling is Cheryl Dingman of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.

She noted first that the M-N has a strong NIE program at Overfelt High and many other secondary schools in Santa Clara County.

"I don't see programs like Channel One as a threat to us," Dingman said. Moreover, she continued, Fogel's decision gave her the idea of going to Overfelt to see "if we can't kick into it with our newspaper.

"There should be a natural tie-in with the paper," Dingman explained. "The four or five minutes of news on Channel One are not nearly enough for those kids. The newspaper can give them a deeper, more detailed understanding of what they've watched on television."

Dingman, a former teacher and businesswoman, urged newspapers to regard children's media intake as simply another marketing challenge that must be aggressively addressed.

"Sure, there are other media competing for students' attention, but there's room for all of us," she said. "We have to be proactive, not just reactive."
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Author:Stein, M.L.
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Sep 19, 1992
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