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Classroom Commercials Argued In Court

September 3, 1992

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ A judge hearing a challenge to in-school television Channel One said Wednesday he may appoint a classroom monitor to see if the program’s commercials are illegal.

Superior Court Judge Jeremy Fogel concluded a hearing on the state education department’s lawsuit against the program without reaching a decision.

He said he was convinced the mere presence of commercials in school wasn’t illegal, but hadn’t decided whether showing them as part of the school day is coercive.

What the judge eventually decides will be closely watched by districts elsewhere. About 7.1 million students in approximately 12,000 public and private schools in 45 states watch Channel One broadcasts each school day.

Underscoring the California case is the current financial crisis, which led to education cuts in the long-overdue state budget passed Wednesday.

Channel One proponents maintain the program gets students interested in news and lets its operator, Whittle Communications, provide schools with high- tech video equipment they couldn’t otherwise afford.

State officials maintain the equipment is paid for with students’ attention spans.

″I just don’t see how you can use the financial crisis to say that the school system is for sale,″ said state attorney Michael Hersher.

The lawsuit was brought by state School Superintendent Bill Honig, who wants to ban Channel One from San Jose’s East Side Union High School District.

State education spokesman William L. Rukeyser said if the state wins this challenge it would be used as a precedent to oust Channel One from the 48 other state districts that carry it. He said he believes Whittle’s contractual requirement that participating teachers show 90 percent of the broadcast will ultimately be judged coercive.

While Fogel prepares his decision, school officials can continue to show the program. The judge said he may appoint someone to watch and get more information about the commercials’ impact.

Lawyers defending Channel One said students are not being force-fed a message.

″The children aren’t naive. They know that the schools are not endorsing these products any more than their parents are endorsing everything they see at home,″ said Jan Jensen, an attorney representing the 23 California school districts supporting East Side in the lawsuit.

Whittle attorney John McDermott said the 90 percent requirement applies only to teachers who agree to participate. Students also have the right to opt out. Should the audience become too small, Whittle has the right to pull its equipment, McDermott said, although it was not clear at what point that decision would be made.

Whittle, based in Knoxville, Tenn., earns about $630,000 a day in advertising for four 30-second commercials shown each broadcast. Without the advertisements, McDermott said, the program cannot continue.

Joining the state were the California Congress of Parents, Teachers and Students, Inc. as well as two teachers from William C. Overfelt High School, where the program is currently being shown.

On the other side of the issue, some Overfelt students and Principal Elias Chamorro attended Wednesday’s hearing to show their support of Channel One.

″It relates to the students,″ said senior Thi Hoang. ″The commercials come on and we don’t pay attention to it, we just turn around and talk to our friends.″

Whittle spokesman Jim Ritts said Channel One has weathered other challenges, including an Aug. 6 ruling in New Jersey in which Education Commissioner John Ellis rejected an administrative law judge’s contention that the commercials violated state law. The program is banned in New York state classrooms.

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