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Court Backs Media Rules for Wisconsin High School Sports

A state high school athletic authority's exclusive contract with one company to live stream sports contests over the Web does not violate the free press rights of other media organizations that sought to cover the same events, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, came in a case involving rules developed by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association for coverage of post-season tournament action in numerous sports.

The association in 2005 contracted with a video production company, American-HiFi, to live stream almost all post-season contests in sports such as football, basketball, ice hockey, wrestling, and swimming. The rules barred other outlets from any live coverage of the association's contests and limited recorded footage to two minutes in news shows, sports programs, or websites. Other media outlets could seek permission, and pay a fee, to stream athletic events that American-HiFi decided not to carry. (The WIAA has long had separate contracts with TV networks for exclusive broadcast or cable coverage of some sports.)

A Gannett newspaper that publishes in Wisconsin defied the rules by live streaming four playoff football games and refusing to pay the association any fees.

The WIAA then took the offensive, suing Gannett and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, seeking a court judgment that it had the ownership rights in any "transmission, internet stream, photo, image, film, audiotape, writing, drawing, or other depiction or description of any game" and could grant the exclusive right to others.

A federal district court agreed with the Wisconsin athletic group, and in an Aug. 24 decision, the 7th Circuit panel upheld the district court.

"Viewed in the proper light, ... WIAA's Media Policies do not, as Gannett [and others] fear, threaten the fundamental right of the press to comment on and cover school sporting events," said the court's opinion in Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association v. Gannett Co. Inc. "The media are free under the policy to talk and write about the events to their hearts' content. What they cannot do is to appropriate the entertainment product that WIAA has created without paying for it. WIAA has the right to package and distribute its performance; nothing in the First Amendment confers on the media an affirmative right to broadcast entire performances."

Education Week's Bryan Toporek reported on this case last week in his Schooled in Sports blog.

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