The Groton Channel usually carries local selectmen's meetings and high school sports events. So Joan Simmons was taken aback this month when she flipped on the cable-access channel and found a documentary that argued the Twin Towers fell because of a planned demolition, not because of the crash of two hijacked airliners.
Simmons immediately e-mailed a community "listserv" with choice words about this "Groton Channel Special," calling for a rebuttal and asking whether Dunstable, where she lives, could withdraw some of its funding for the cable channel. That prompted a heated online discussion, with 70 e-mails to the Talk About Groton list about the movie and about public access - something all cable subscribers pay for, but relatively few participate in or understand.
The contentious Twin Towers documentary has run several times on The Groton Channel and on CCTV, the cable access channel for Concord and Carlisle, and has raised hackles for both its content and its lack of community ties. The two-hour "9/11: Blueprint for Truth" movie - which is popular among those in the self-described 9/11 Truth Movement, some of whom believe the US government enabled the destruction of the World Trade Center as a pretext for war - is based on a lecture given by San Francisco-area architect Richard Gage to a Canadian audience.
"I would like to know how much Groton spent on this 'truthful documentary from an unimpeachable source,' " Nancy Van Doren wrote in a follow-up to Simmons's message. "I am sure that those who lost family and/or good friends in the terror attack are impressed with what our 'educated' town is using as fill. Whatever the cost of this program in dollars, those who decided to air this should be identified and made to account for their decision."
The program, though, did not cost taxpayers anything - except for the housing, heat, and electricity provided for The Groton Channel's studio and office at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School. Public-access cable channels, which are funded by subscriber fees and not tax dollars, are an open venue for locally produced programming as well as for locals to broadcast - or cablecast, in the public-access vernacular - programming produced elsewhere, provided they have permission from the producer or copyright-holder.
The federal Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 called for cable providers to set up and fund outlets for local government, educational, and community programming as part of their license agreements. In Groton,
Although most programming is local, it is not a requirement, Colman said. The Groton Channel has only a few restrictions - no advertising, nothing obscene, nothing about the lottery, and nothing libelous or slanderous. A local resident, Alfred Magaletta, brought in a "Blueprint for Truth" DVD a few weeks ago and signed a copyright-waiver form, so Colman agreed to show it a half-dozen times over a three-week period.
"We're a First Amendment venue," Colman said of The Groton Channel, which is carried in Dunstable, Groton, Harvard, and Pepperell. "It would be illegal for us to tell [people] they can't express themselves."
Magaletta, a realtor in Concord, also submitted the movie to CCTV, where, as with public-access channels everywhere, the staff helps residents produce their own programs but makes no value judgments about the message.
"I kind of think of us as a soapbox. We take it around and let people say what they want," said Charles Paige, CCTV's executive director. "Believe me, I disagree with some things that I air, but that is within people's rights to say what they want."
Program sponsors can choose whether to include their name on TV. Magaletta, who did not return calls for this story, chose not to include his name, but an e-mailer identified him on the Groton listserv - spurring a debate-within-a-debate about privacy in the public forum.
"I think the piece was absolute drivel, and I would be embarrassed if I were the one who foisted this nonsense on the viewing community," Groton resident Alan Hoch wrote. "That said, I am extremely wary of inhibiting anyone's right to say what they want."
In an interview, Hoch said he did not think Magaletta's name needed to be revealed, although he thought the movie did a disservice to the memory of the victims of Sept. 11, 2001. "The price for having free speech is that from time to time we have to listen to speech we don't agree with," he said.
Van Doren agreed, though she called the movie "very poor taste in a town that did lose some people on the airplanes" - Peter and Sue Kim Hanson and their 2-year-old daughter, Christine Lee Hanson, who died on United Airlines Flight 175.
Simmons, who considers The Groton Channel an asset and watches it for the School Committee meetings, said the anonymity did not bother her. She was unhappy to see a "conspiracy theory" documentary emanating from a public school-housed venue.
Colman said he hopes any attention generated by the movie will help increase the community's understanding of public-access TV - and draw viewers to its locally generated programming, like a recent documentary on the high school's robotics club that won its producer, Astrid Jacob, a regional excellence award from the Alliance for Community Media.
Simmons said she made inquiries to find a rebuttal movie but expects to have little luck getting the rights to show a professional documentary, such as NOVA's "Why the Towers Fell," on public access.
Meanwhile, she is hoping that nobody else will have sat through "Blueprint for Truth" before it runs its course on public access, and that the film will not spawn any imitators.
"I'm hoping that enough of a stink was made about this that they'll think twice about doing it again."
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.