ACLU of VA Defends Right of Former Radio Station Owner to Speak Out Against FCC

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
September 24, 1999 12:00 am

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RICHMOND, VA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has agreed to represent a former radio station owner who faces contempt charges for challenging the Federal Communications Commission and speaking out against the transfer of the station’s license to a new owner.

ACLU lawyers say that former station owner Rita Sutherland’s actions are protected by the right of free speech and the right to petition government for redress of grievances. The case will be argued on Monday in Federal District Court in Abingdon.

Until recently, Sutherland was an officer of Legend Radio Group, Inc., which owns two radio stations and has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings for several years. A federal court approved a liquidation plan, but Legend has sought review of the decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In July, members of the public in Abingdon mounted a campaign to block Federal Communication Commission approval of the transfer of the Legend’s license to Bristol Broadcasting Company.

Last month, after Sutherland and other officers used their personal funds to buy ads on the radio station and distribute petitions, U.S. District Court Judge Glen Williams held them in contempt for violating a court order requiring officers of Legend to comply with the bankruptcy plan.

“Ms. Sutherland’s comments to the FCC are fully protected by the U.S. Constitution,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg, who will be arguing the case on Monday. “Like any other citizen, she should be able to express her views on this matter.”

In order to continue her advocacy but without the conflict created by being an officer of the station, Sutherland then resigned her position as an officer and manager of Legend and filed a petition with the FCC opposing the transfer of the station.

Sutherland informed the judge of her intentions to take these steps, and he did not issue any order preventing her from doing so. However, lawyers for the Bristol Broadcasting Company responded by filing a motion in federal court asking the judge again to find her in contempt.

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