• Transit Ad Limits Face Free Speech Challenges

    Free speech advocates are trying to chip away at transit-ad policies banning messages that could cause trouble.

    Transit authorities defend ad limits as necessary restraint for safety and well-being of passengers and employees.

    Here is an update on litigation, showing mixed outcomes:

    Philadelphia

    A federal judge, at a hearing on November 1, said he’s considering whether to order the regional transit system to drop its ban on political ads.

    The California-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) sued the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) for its refusal to accept ads about the news organization’s findings on racial disparities in mortgage lending.  The plaintiff is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania.

    The regional transit authority says it doesn’t discriminate based on content or political position because it rejects broad categories of ads.

    Plaintiffs argue that SEPTA’s ad policy is too vague, and leads to discrimination based on content. For example, they say the transit agency has accepted bank ads that say financial institutions are equal-opportunity housing lenders, the subject that was investigated by Center for Investigative Reporting.

    King County, WA

    The transit agency in King County refuses ads that are false, disparaging, or may disrupt the system.

    On September 27, the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that King County’s ban on demeaning or disparaging ads was unconstitional because it discriminates based on viewpoint.

    Banning inaccurate ads does not violate the First Amendment, the appeals court said.

    Washington, DC

    The federal appeals court for Washington, DC, upheld the regional transit agency’s refusal to accept a Christmas-themed ad from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese.  The ruling was issued July 31.

    The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) stopped taking issue-oriented and religious-political messages in 2015 due to security concerns. The transit agency has spent nearly $1.6 million defending its advertising policy, according to newly released records. WMATA’s case was argued by Donald B. Verilli Jr, who was Solicitor General of the United States during the Obama Administration (2011-2016).


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