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Court Tunes Into Cable-Phone Case

The Supreme Court took on an information-age dispute Wednesday, debating whether local telephone companies have a free-speech right to offer cable television programming in their service areas.

A Clinton administration lawyer urged the justices to let it continue banning most cable TV program sales by phone companies. The ban enacted aims to keep phone companies from squeezing out cable competitors, said deputy solicitor general Lawrence G. Wallace.

But Laurence Tribe, representing phone companies that want to go into the cable TV business, said lower courts correctly ruled the ban unconstitutional.

“The law targets one thing and one thing only, and that is speech,” Tribe said.

The justices are expected to rule by July, but Congress may decide the issue first. Both houses are working on a telecommunications bill that would let telephone companies sell cable TV programs. If the measure is enacted, the case could become moot.