Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The First Amendment by its terms applies only to laws enacted by Congress and not to the actions of private persons. 1 As such, the First Amendment is subject to a
state action (or
governmental action) limitation similar to that applicable to the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. 2 The Supreme Court has stated that “a private entity can qualify as a state actor in a few limited circumstances,” such as “ when the private entity performs a traditional, exclusive public function;  when the government compels the private entity to take a particular action; or  when the government acts jointly with the private entity.”  3 In addition, some private entities established by the government to carry out governmental objectives may qualify as state actors for purposes of the First Amendment. For example, in Lebron v. National Railroad Passenger Corp., the Court held that the national passenger train company Amtrak, “though nominally a private corporation,” qualified as “an agency or instrumentality of the United States” for purposes of the First Amendment. 4 It did not matter, in the Court’s view, that the federal statute establishing Amtrak expressly stated that Amtrak was not a federal agency because Amtrak was “established and organized under federal law for the very purpose of pursuing federal governmental objectives, under the direction and control of federal governmental appointees.” 5
The question of when broadcast companies are engaged in governmental action subject to the First Amendment has historically divided the Court. In Columbia Broadcasting System v. Democratic National Committee, the Court considered whether a radio station that had a license from the government to broadcast over airwaves in the public domain needed to comply with the First Amendment when it sold air time to third parties.  6The radio station had a policy of refusing to sell air time to persons seeking to express opinions on controversial issues. 7 Three Justices joined a plurality opinion concluding that the radio station was not engaged in governmental action when it enforced this policy. 8 They reasoned that the federal government had not partnered with or profited from the broadcaster’s decisions and that Congress had “affirmatively indicated” that broadcasters subject to federal law retained certain journalistic license. 9 In the view of those Justices, if the Court were “to read the First Amendment to spell out governmental action in the circumstances presented . . . , few licensee decisions on the content of broadcasts or the processes of editorial evaluation would escape constitutional scrutiny.” 10 In contrast, three other Members of the Court would have held that the radio station was engaged in governmental action because of the degree of governmental regulation of broadcasters’ activities and the station’s use of the airwaves, a public resource. 11 And three Justices would not have decided the state action question. 12 Nevertheless, these three Justices joined the Court’s opinion concluding that even if the broadcaster was engaged in governmental action, the First Amendment did not require “a private right of access to the broadcast media.”  13
More recently, in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, the Supreme Court held that Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN), a private, nonprofit corporation designated by New York City to operate public access channels in Manhattan, was not a state actor for purposes of the First Amendment because it did not exercise a “traditional, exclusive public function.” 14 Emphasizing the limited number of functions that met this standard under the Court’s precedents, 15 the Court reasoned that operating public access channels “has not traditionally and exclusively been performed by government” because “a variety of private and public actors” had performed the function since the 1970s. 16 Moreover, the Court reasoned, “merely hosting speech by others is not a traditional, exclusive public function and does not alone transform private entities into state actors subject to First Amendment constraints.” 17 In the majority’s view, the city’s selection of MNN and the state’s extensive regulation of MNN did not in and of themselves create state action. 18