The Maine Attorney General’s Office has given up its fight to defend a law that would have required cable TV providers to give subscribers the option of purchasing access to individual cable channels rather than bundled packages.

Maine lawmakers passed the first-of-its-kind measure in 2019, but cable companies quickly challenged it in federal court. They argued in part that the law violated their First Amendment rights by infringing on the “editorial discretion” of programmers and cable operators.

In December of that year, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen issued an injunction to keep the law from taking effect, an initial victory for cable provider Comcast and the other plaintiffs. When the state challenged that injunction, a federal appeals court in Boston upheld it in February of this year. The case returned to Torresen to decide the underlying challenge to the law.

However, the parties filed a joint motion last month agreeing to resolve the lawsuit in favor of the cable companies. Torresen granted that motion last week, and the case has been closed. Now, the state can never enforce the law or put it into effect.

“It is hereby ordered that, based on the defendants’ concession, Chapter 308 violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Torresen wrote.

Comcast, which provides service in Brunswick and surrounding communities, has led the challenge to the law and has been joined by companies that provide programming, including Disney, Fox Cable, NBC/Universal and others. The initial lawsuit also named a handful of Maine towns and cities as defendants because cable companies operate under contracts with municipalities, but they were dropped by agreement of the state and cable operators.

Neither the motion nor the order explain why the state decided to concede. A spokesperson said the Attorney General’s Office had no comment beyond what is in the court documents.

“Maine has recognized that their programming law, which would have harmed consumers and independent and diverse programmers, is unconstitutional after court rulings that affirmed the First Amendment prevents states from deciding how video content is sold to consumers,” Marc Goodman, a spokesman for Comcast, wrote in an email. “The video marketplace is dynamic and consumers have more choices than ever before to view and buy programming. We’ll continue to offer our customers a wide variety of diverse channels, programs and packages and to compete with others in this vibrant market.”

State Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, said he sponsored the original bill because the high cost of cable packages is prohibitive for many people and he wanted them to have more affordable options. He was disappointed in the outcome of the legal challenge and compared it to the 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that corporations have a First Amendment right to certain political spending.

“My bill did nothing to prevent them offering channels or programming,” Evangelos said. “It was a free choice bill. Just like when you go to the grocery store, you buy what groceries you want. That notwithstanding, the cable companies and their lawyers pursued this free speech argument and the judges fell for it.”

He predicted that cable companies would eventually embrace an à la carte model as more people drop their service or opt for streaming services instead.

“Kids don’t even watch cable anymore,” Evangelos said. “They use their gadgets. That will probably take care of it for me. But in the meantime, it’s a big loss.”

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