ACLU Sues SEPTA Over Rejected “Political” Ads

The transit authority refused several proposed ads that would have touched on racial disparities in the home-mortgage market.

Photo: SEPTA.

The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting against SEPTA over the transit authority’s rejection of certain advertisements based on its policy prohibiting messaging with “political” content.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed on Wednesday in the federal court’s Eastern District of Pennsylvania, CIR applied to post interior ads on SEPTA’s buses and Regional Rail trains that would feature information and graphics pertaining to the nonprofit’s finding of racial disparities in the conventional home-mortgage market.

SEPTA denied CIR’s request, citing two provisions of its current advertising standards: (1) “advertisements involving an issue that is political in nature in that it directly or indirectly implicates the action, inaction, prospective action or policies of a government entity” and (2) “advertisements expressing or advocating an opinion, position or viewpoint on matters of public debate about economic, political, religious, historical or social issues.”

The ACLU argues that these contingencies violate the free speech clause of the First Amendment in several ways. First, they say SEPTA’s policy is vaguely defined, which provides the opportunity for the agency to censor “a broad range of speech.” The organization also claims that the standards discriminate based on viewpoint by repressing “controversial” speech.

“It’s always a bad idea to give the government the power to choose what ideas can be heard,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “Time and time again, the Supreme Court has rejected the notion that the government has a legitimate interest in censoring political speech or speech it finds offensive. Debate on public issues is the cornerstone of participatory democracy. No government entity, including SEPTA, should single it out for censorship.”

“Getting important information into the hands of those most affected is a key tenet of both journalism and government,” said Amy Pyle, CIR’s editor in chief. “Allowing a transit agency to define factual information as political advocacy takes us all down a dangerous slope.”

The ACLU is seeking:

  • A declaration that SEPTA’s rejection of CIR’s ad violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
  • A preliminary and permanent injunction requiring SEPTA to accept the advertising proposal submitted by CIR and to permit CIR to purchase advertising for its reporting on racial disparities in mortgage lending in SEPTA advertising spaces.
  • A preliminary and permanent injunction prohibiting SEPTA from enforcing the two sections of its 2015 Advertising Standards.
  • An award covering the cost of attorney’s fees and other relief the court deems “just and proper.”

“The Center for Investigative Reporting mistakenly claims that SEPTA violated its First Amendment rights by rejecting its proposed advertisement expressing a viewpoint on a matter of public debate,” SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch says. “SEPTA’s decision is consistent with its advertising policy, which is constitutionally sound and necessary to ensure that our vehicles and stations do not become forums for political debate — and distract from our core mission of providing safe and reliable public transportation in an environment that is welcoming to customers and employees. To protect this critical public service, SEPTA will vigorously defend against this lawsuit.”

This, of course, isn’t the first time that SEPTA has encountered legal trouble because of an ad. Back in 2014, the authority was sued by a New Hampshire hate group after their anti-Muslim ads were rejected based upon company policy against the “disparagement” or “ridicule” of any “person or group of persons on the basis of race, religious belief, age, sex, alienage, national origin, sickness or disability.”