Public Excess

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For Hillsborough County television viewers bored with their options on a Friday night in April, a scene with a young woman being playfully whipped on the behind might have been an interesting alternative to Blind Date or the 10 p.m. news, but to one cable access watcher, what was on the screen that night was lewd and disgusting. So disturbing, that the viewer wrote to The Tampa Tribune to complain. That letter, County Commissioner Ronda Storms says, is what prompted her (and Commissioner Jim Norman) to contact Speak Up Tampa Bay, the nonprofit group that has run public access in Hillsborough County for the last year and a half, to gain access to a videotape of the show, called Insanity Defense.

Now, this one hour of programming has ended up creating havoc for Speak Up Tampa Bay. The group did not win approval of funding from the county at a Budget Reconciliation Workshop last Thurs-day. Instead, the county voted to temporarily suspend the vote on approving the funds until later this year, and agreed unanimously to send the Insanity Defense episode to State At- torney Mark Ober's office for possible prosecution on obscenity charges.

The show, produced by Jerry Cantor, began that April evening with Cantor — or more accurately, Cantor's crotch — live on camera. Cantor was wearing what appeared to be USF Bulls shorts. His extremely hairy thighs were also shown in the shot.

Graphics around that unusual shot included a phone number to call in live, as well as a short sentence that was sufficient to bring in a large quantity of phone calls: "Needs a Blow Job."

For the first 10 minutes of the video, Cantor answered mostly inane questions from the audience, though some of the queries were far more clever than the host's juvenile and one-dimensional responses.

Then the video, as it did a few times during its 60-minute length, cut to what appeared to be a raucous scene at a bar. A series of different women who — either wearing revealing shorts or thong bikinis — were slapped on their behinds, all by one burly character in black jeans and black baseball cap. The device used to slap them was a pom-pom like whip, with a handle that looked almost like a scepter. At a couple of intervals in the video, the Hells Angels guy slowly worked the scepter-handle underneath the women's crotch, grinding provocatively. There was another shot where his hand appeared to fondle a woman's crotch as well.

Although momentarily interesting, those shots were cut back between Cantor's inane patter with his callers.

Speak Up Tampa Bay receives funding from the city of Tampa, and from the county in the form of franchise fees, from your Time-Warner cable bill. However, those franchise fees are set to be abolished this October and will become part of a communications tax. But it still appears likely that Speak Up will receive their full funding later this year.

But Speak up has been put in a defensive position ever since Storms flagged the line item regarding franchise fees during a budget workshop in June.

That was after county attorneys viewed Insanity Defense. In a memo obtained by Weekly Planet, Assis-tant County Attorney Rebecca Kert wrote to Commissioner Jim Norman, in response to his request to review the issue of "hard-core pornography on Public Access." Kert wrote that Speak Up is prohibited from any type of censorship on programs the channel airs — as long as it is lawful — and not obscene.

Was Insanity Defense obscene? Speak Up didn't think so, and county attorneys agreed.

Norman was satisfied with that ruling at that time. He told Weekly Planet that cable access doesn't do much for him, but acknowledged it's a "forum for people to do their thing."

Members of Speak Up met with some commissioners in between the time that Storms said she was flagging their budget line and last Thursday. But Commissioner Storms opted not to meet with members of Speak Up. She told Board Chairman Louise Thompson that her mind was already made up not to support funding for public access, and that she would do all she could to get others on the commission to vote against it.

Speak Up was highly successful in getting community members, especially those who have programs on public access, to rally in support of continued funding. At the Board of County Commissioners meeting on Aug. 1, more than 15 members of the community came out to speak in support of public access and aired a short video extolling many of their positive shows for the community.

But Commissioner Storms was prepared for battle. At the Budget Reconciliation Workshop, Storms reasoned with her fellow commissioners that, just as they would never allow an honorable group such as the Sierra Club to raise a building in an environmentally unfriendly manner, they shouldn't allow an organization that admittedly does a lot of great work to be funded if it "pollutes" the cultural environment.

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