WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit alleging that the transit agency’s advertising guidelines violated free speech.
Plaintiffs in addition to the ACLU include Carafem, Milo Worldwide LLC and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The suit named the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority and General Manager Paul Wiedefeld as defendants.
Carafem is a health care corporation that provides abortion and family planning care. Milo Worldwide LLC is a corporation through which controversial personality Milo Yiannopoulous carries out his activities. PETA is an animal rights organization.
The suit said that Metro rejected the following ads by the plaintiffs: an ACLU ad that displays the text of the First Amendment in multiple languages; an ad by Carafem advertising a “10-Week-After-Pill;” PETA ads suggesting people go vegan; and an ad for Yiannopoulous’ book “Dangerous.”
One of the prohibitions in Metro’s current ad guidelines is that there should be no ads that influence the public on issues with varying opinions. ACLU legal director for the District of Columbia Arthur Spitzer said that this is “misguided and impossible to administer fairly.”
The suit claims that Metro accepted ads from other organizations promoting controversial issues while rejecting ads from the plaintiffs, which Spitzer said seems like viewpoint discrimination — allowing some viewpoints but not others, something the First Amendment prohibits.
“Metro is willing to take an ad that encourages people to eat pork but not an ad that says ‘please don’t’,” Spitzer said, describing an ad for a restaurant that ran while a PETA ad was rejected.
The lawsuit wants the court to order Metro to run the ads in trains, stations and buses; and declare that four sections of the guidelines — 4, 9, 13, 14 — are unconstitutional because they violate free speech, are enforced arbitrarily and are vague, according to an ACLU statement.
A motion was also filed for Milo Worldwide LLC for loss of revenue caused by removal of the ad for Yiannopoulous’ book. Metro had allowed advertising for the book but pulled the ads after riders raised concerns.
“I think it’s an indefensible policy to say that as soon as someone complains about an advertisement, we’re going to take it down,” Spitzer said.
He said that it is ironic that Metro won’t allow the ACLU to display the text of the First Amendment. “Metro is a government agency subject to the First Amendment,” Spitzer said.
In May 2015, Metro closed ad space through the end of the year to issue-oriented advertising, after the pro-Israel group American Freedom Defense Initiative submitted ads for several train stations. The transit agency amended its advertising guidelines to its current status in November 2015.
Spitzer said that transit advertising is a means of communicating with people in a metropolitan area, and Metro advertising is a way to reach everybody. “Almost everybody rides the bus or the subway or sees the bus go by. And it’s way to get your message to people who might not otherwise see it, and that’s a very valuable thing to our society.”
WTOP’s Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.