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Fringe candidates to get day in court

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether fringe candidates who have generated little interest among voters can be excluded from debates staged by public television networks.

The justices said they would review a lower-court ruling that said a state-run Arkansas network violated the free-speech rights of an independent candidate for Congress when the network staged a debate with only Republican and Democratic candidates.

A decision could affect election coverage and debates by public TV stations nationwide. The Federal Election Commission, which is siding with the Arkansas Educational Television Commission, said the lower-court ruling, if upheld, "will undoubtedly lead many state-entity licensees to abandon their sponsorship of such debates in the future." The case will be heard in the term that begins next October and a decision is expected by mid-1998.

The dispute began in 1992 when Ralph P. Forbes, an independent candidate for Arkansas's 3rd Congressional District, was excluded from a debate on the Arkansas Educational Television Network. The editors, citing Forbes's lackluster public support, determined Forbes was not a serious candidate. They said Forbes' presence would detract from time available for the candidates whose campaigns had generated significant public interest.

Forbes said his First Amendment rights had been violated, and his suit ultimately reached the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled the network created a "limited public forum" by staging the debate and opening its facilities to congressional candidates. The court said once the state-run network opened its facilities to some members of a particular group, it had to open them to all members of that group.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the Arkansas Educational Television Commission said state-operated broadcast stations will be beset by demands from fringe candidates if the decision by the 8th Circuit, covering seven middle-America states, is not overturned. The commission stressed its network never intended the debate be open to all candidates _ only those whose campaigns generated public support.

An agency of the state of Arkansas, the commission was created to operate the educational television network. About two-thirds of public television stations nationwide are similarly licensed to state entities and could be affected by a ruling by the Supreme Court.