The bottom line is that local broadcast channels are available in HD to any cable subscriber with a clear QAM tuner, whether you have a set-top-box or not. The recent news changes nothing, except maybe a very select few who were lucky enough to receive more than locals via clear QAM. We dropped the FCC a line to make sure we had our facts straight -- wouldn't want to call people out without checking our own first -- and the very prompt answer we received was that this statutory requirement goes all the way back to the to the Communications Act of 1934 (Section 614(b)(4)(B).
More recently, the FCC addressed the issue when laying down the digital transition rules which "states that broadcast signals that are subject to mandatory carriage must be "viewable via cable on all television receivers of a subscriber which are connected to a cable system by a cable operator or for which a cable operator provides a connection." Now obviously we're not lawyers, but it seems pretty clear that local cable operators are not allowed to encrypt any locally broadcast HD stations. Now we've heard reports that some cable companies do indeed encrypt these signals, but while you might be willing to complain on some forum about it, have you taken the time to file a proper complaint with the FCC? If not, then you really don't have anything to complain about.
Read (doc) - The 2007 Report to set the transition rules (paragraph 15)
**UPDATE** As you can see from the comments, with anything legal it isn't exactly cut and dry. In fact the only thing we've managed to accomplish is to be confused. So while some level of broadcast TV has to be free, we're not sure if it's free as in beer or what. Stay tuned for a follow up just as soon as we figure it out.