The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday filed suit to block new Federal Communications Commission rules limiting the availability of “indecent” programming on cable-leased access channels.

The ACLU was joined in its suit by the Colorado-based ’90s Channel, which programs leased access channels in six states, two cable-access rights organizations, and People for the American Way.

Leased-access channels are the “Wayne’s World”-type channels designed to give viewers access to the airwaves. Until last year, cable operators were barred from exercising editorial control of the channels. However, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and former Sen. Wyche Fowler, a Georgia Democrat, attached an amendment to last year’s cable reregulation law that forces cablers to limit indecent programming on access channels.

The cable operator is either required to ban indecent programming entirely, or place the raciest of shows on a single channel that can only be seen if subscribers request the channel in writing.

The suit, filed in the D.C. Court of Appeals, claims the FCC interpretation of the congressional statute illegally violates the First Amendment rights of cable operators.

John Schwartz, president of the’90s Channel, said his org covers the issues of AIDS and gay rights “in a candid, direct way, but now we may be forced to withhold some of the most valuable material on those subjects. Censorship may literally cost some people their lives.”

Marjorie Heins, director of the ACLU’s Arts Censorship Project, said the FCC regs “are so broad and vague that many cable operators will feel they have to censor every program with sexual content.”

Indecent programming differs from obscene material in that it is protected speech. It is defined by the FCC as material that “describes or depicts sexual or excretory activities or organs in a patently offensive manner as measured by contemporary community standards.”

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