Voting 6-3 in an Arkansas case, the court said the nation's state-owned stations need not invite all ballot-qualified fringe candidates to participate in their debates. State employees can exclude the candidates without violating their free-speech rights, the court ruled.
Government-run stations do not run afoul of the Constitution's First Amendment by exercising "viewpoint-neutral exercise of journalistic discretion," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court.
The ruling could have a wide impact even though it directly affects only government-owned - not privately owned broadcast stations. About two-thirds of the nation's noncommercial, educational stations are licensed to state and local governments or their agencies.
The decision reversed a federal appeals court ruling that said editors of the five-station Arkansas Educational Television Network violated Ralph Forbes' free-speech rights by not inviting him to a 1992 debate of congressional candidates.
Forbes, a former American Nazi Party member who now calls himself a Christian supremacist, was an independent candidate who got about 2.5 percent of the votes cast. Only Democrats and Republicans were invited to the televised, pre-election debate of candidates in the district in which Forbes was running.
He later sued, seeking monetary damages. Monday's ruling kills his lawsuit.
Learning of the decision, Forbes said he was "utterly stunned and shocked."
"They have overturned the First Amendment," he said in a telephone interview from London, Ark. "It's very Orwellian. It's very chilling. It ought to scare the hell out of anybody with any brains."
Susan Howarth, executive director of the Arkansas Educational Television Network, praised the court's ruling.
"The court has affirmed that we as government-licensed broadcasters have those same rights and freedoms (as private broadcasters) to be able to serve our viewers," she said.
Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer.
Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.
Writing for the three, Stevens said the court "understates the constitutional importance of the distinction between state ownership and private ownership of broadcast facilities."
The free-speech dispute made for a lively Supreme Court argument session last October, during which Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist invented an unpopular candidate, Willie Wacko, considered a loser even by his friends.
"Do they have to give him access?" Rehnquist asked.
By RICHARD CARELLI