Legal four-for-all

James Cohen in The New York Post, September 29, 2010

Media Source


Last Updated: 10:41 AM, September 29, 2010

Posted: 12:02 AM, September 29, 2010

The "Sister Wives" show will continue airing -- even if its polygamy-practicing cast goes to jail for breaking Utah's bigamy laws.

Kody Brown and his four wives are under investigation by police in their hometown of Lehi, Utah, after Sunday-night's premiere of TLC's "Wives" exposed their polygamist living arrangement.

Bigamy is a felony in Utah and carries a prison term of up to five years.

But even if the Browns are thrown into the clink for breaking Utah's bigamy laws, TLC can continue airing "Wives," legal experts say.

The bigamy law in Utah is rarely enforced, but a fundamentalist Mormon married to five women who made a series of TV appearances, including "48 Hours" in 2000, spent six years in prison after being convicted of bigamy and other charges.

"We are disappointed in the announcement of an investigation, but when we decided to do this show, we knew there would be risks," the Browns said in a statement.

"But, for the sake of our family, and most importantly, our kids, we felt it was a risk worth taking."

If the Browns are charged with a crime, TLC will have to decide if it should keep airing the series -- offering prosecutors more evidence with every episode. There is little chance, however, that the network can be legally stopped.

"There's no doubt the family signed a waiver to appear on the show, which is like a contract," says Jim Cohen, associate professor of law at Fordham University.

"So TLC can still show the series notwithstanding the possibility that the reality people end up in jail.

"As long as the waiver covers it, the First Amendment trumps everything."

"Sister Wives," which snared a better-than-average 2.3 million viewers in its premiere, focuses on Kody Brown, a 41-year-old salesman, and his four wives -- Meri (his first and only legal wife), Janelle, Christine and Robyn.

He has 13 kids and three stepchildren in all.

Cops in Lehi say all the evidence gathered in their probe will be turned over to the Utah County attorney's office, according to the Associated Press.

The mainstream Mormon Church, which has repudiated the practice of plural marriage, has not contacted TLC about the series, according to sources at the network. The Browns are not Mormons, but belong to a specific, unnamed sect they decline to identify.

The Mormon Church, though, isn't shy about speaking out about TV shows in which polygamy is a featured subject -- including HBO's "Big Love."

In March 2009, church officials fired off an angry statement about the "insensitivities" shown in a "Big Love" episode, specifically its depiction of a secret marriage rite called an "endowment ceremony."

HBO defended "Big Love's" writer/producers and apologized "to those who may be offended."