Jewish World Review March 15, 2002 / 2 Nissan, 5762

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Consumer Reports

Do we have an inalienable right to TV? | It's the easiest thing in the world to make fun of Edward Bello.

I know, because I just spent the last few hours doing it. Packed a bunch of snarky one-liners into a column that now sits in my computer's recycle bin, destined never to see the light of day.

Man, I hate it when that happens.

Bello, for the many of you who won't know, is the New York man who recently went to federal court to argue that there is a constitutional right to watch television.

So you can see why I considered him a gift from the column gods. The jokes pretty much wrote themselves. But then I made a mistake: I started to think about it. And you know what? The man might have a point. See what you think.

According to the New York Times, this all got started when Bello appeared in the court of federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein. Bello, 60, reportedly has a record of frequent arrests and occasional convictions for various petty crimes, but he has yet to spend even a day in prison.

When Bello came before him to plead guilty on a charge of conspiracy to use stolen credit cards, Hellerstein decided to do something to get the career scofflaw's attention. So the judge sent Bello to his room without television.

That is, he sentenced him to 10 months under house arrest. No leaving home except to work, buy groceries, attend worship services, go to school or see a doctor. And no TV.

Sounds like a pretty generous deal to me. Bello must have felt the same as he swore off television right there in court. But evidently, those first few weeks without "Fear Factor" were pure hell, because the next thing you know, his public defenders are back in court, arguing that the TV ban infringes Bello's rights under the First Amendment. Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in his favor.

Maybe your first instinct is the same as mine - to wonder if somebody spiked the judge's water. But tell me: Would you feel the same if, instead of taking away television, government were taking away books, newspapers or Web sites? Is your contempt - like mine - based on the fact that Bello was "only" losing television?

It's a murky question, I'll be the first to admit. After all, the fact is that Bello is a convict, and the rights of convicts are frequently and properly abridged.

Still, the larger implications nagged me enough that I decided to contact a First Amendment lawyer. Enter Sam Terilli, a Miami-based partner in the Atlanta firm of Ford and Harrison. I asked him: If it's a settled question that publishers and broadcasters have a legal right to publish and broadcast whatever they wish, do ordinary citizens have a similar legal right to read or view as their hearts desire?

The surprising answer: Maybe not.

In Terilli's view, Judge Hellerstein probably did violate Bello's rights by restricting him from material that was available to others. But, he says, that's anything but a legal slam dunk.

"The general notion of the First Amendment is that it protects against governmental infringement of expression by speakers, writers, artists, publishers, broadcasters, et cetera," Terilli said. "Implicit in that notion is a philosophical belief that, as a society, we are better off if people have access to a free flow of information.

"But that's really a philosophical grounding. It is a tougher argument, I believe, for a reader of a book or reader of a magazine to state a legally recognizable claim in court that he has been denied access to some source of information."

In other words, your "right" to see, hear and read whatever you want is grounded more in philosophy than in law. Strongly suggested by the First Amendment, but not explicitly stated there. In which case, maybe what Edward Bello deserves for his stand is not our scorn but our gratitude.

That observation notwithstanding, it seems obvious that Hellerstein could easily have avoided this entire legal wrangle. As one observer told the Times, the judge should have just put the old crook in jail. There, he can watch all the television he wants.

Comment on JWR contributor Leonard Pitts, Jr.'s column by clicking here.

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