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Legal Update: City of Key West settles ADA suit over closed captioning of meetings

Back in January, 2018, we published a brief review of the rules surrounding closed captioning requirements for PEG channels.  In short, the rules for PEG's are the same as rules for other broadcast stations, with one exception: the American's with Disabilities Act (ADA).  PEG operators whose budgets are tied to their local governments overall budget are considered to be public entities under Title II of the ADA and as such, are required to provide services to accommodate persons with disabilities. So while PEG operators may be exempt from certain accessibility requirements under FCC rules, they need to consider how they might be impacted by ADA requirements.

Now comes a settlement in a Florida case in which a hearing impaired man brought suit under the ADA against the City of Key West.  Read the story here.  The suit, filed by ADA activist attorney Eddie Sierra, was filed in US District Court back in 2018.  The City, which broadcasts meetings on their website and on their local public access channel, claimed that the cost of captioning all of their meetings was prohibitive and initially refused claimant's request.  This argument, that the cost of providing captioning is prohibitive and presents an "undue burden", is one made by many smaller municipalities when considering whether to provide captioning for their public meetings.  Many PEG's in smaller markets seem to feel that their small budgets allow them to claim an exemption from complying with the ADA requirements.  However, when looking at the cost relative to the larger municipal budget, this argument may become less relevant.

While the settlement does not provide any guidance on the merits of the suit, it does indicate the precarious situation that municipalities are finding themselves in.  By refusing to provide closed captioning for their live broadcasts, these entities are pitting themselves against their disabled constituent taxpayers while opening themselves up to federal legal challenges from activist attorneys.  As the settlement in this case indicates, it may not be worth the cost.

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