AUGUSTA, Maine — A first-in-the-nation Maine law seeking to force cable providers to offer a la carte services was temporarily blocked by a federal judge last week in a decision that renders the new requirement unlikely to ever take effect.
The telecommunications giant Comcast and several major operators including Fox, Disney and CBS sued Maine in federal court in September over a bill passed by the Democratic-led Legislature mandating that people be allowed to buy access to individual channels or programs, arguing that it was a constitutional violation that was preempted by federal law.
Comcast and allied companies asked the court to delay the law’s implementation on those grounds and U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torreson returned her decision on Friday, agreeing with the companies on free-speech grounds and delaying the law’s implementation.
That step required her to find that their argument was likely to succeed in court, though the case will proceed. Torreson wrote that while Maine has an interest in lowering cable prices for consumers, she couldn’t conclude that the state “has carried its burden” of showing the new law is “likely to reduce prices and increase affordable access to cable.”
Torreson disagreed, however, with the companies’ argument that the law is preempted under other federal laws, which was a major point of contention during legislative debate. In a May letter to Public Advocate Barry Hobbins, the Federal Communications Commission said it had no rulings on file addressing the preemption issue.
It was the first of two lawsuits filed against the state in September over cable law overhauls. The other came from a trade group arguing changes aimed at expanding cable access and making public-access networks easier to find in channel lineup are federally preempted. Torreson, who is also presiding over that lawsuit, hasn’t yet ruled on a similar injunction request.