Lawsuit to Uphold Free Speech Rights on Metro Buses Moves to Appeals Court

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
November 3, 2011 12:00 am

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The ACLU of Washington today announced it is appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in its lawsuit representing the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign (SeaMAC) to uphold the group’s free speech rights on public buses. SeaMAC is challenging King County’s cancellation of a paid bus ad expressing SeaMAC’s views on actions of the Israeli government regarding Palestinians. The lawsuit says that King County’s refusal to allow the ad on Metro buses violated the Campaign’s First Amendment rights.

“In a free and democratic society, we cannot allow the government to suppress lawful speech,” said Kathleen Taylor, ACLU of Washington executive director. “We should keep in mind that mild speech doesn’t need protection. It is when we are faced with controversial speech, speech that is upsetting to some people, that support of the First Amendment is most important,” added Taylor.

In January 2011, the ACLU of Washington filed suit on behalf of SeaMAC in U.S. District Court seeking a declaration that King County’s decision not to publish the ad violated the First Amendment and an order that the county publish the ad as originally promised. On October 7 the district court granted a motion for summary judgment by the county and dismissed the lawsuit. The dismissal is being appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

“We continue to believe that the county acted improperly in cancelling the contract to run the ads. When government accepts paid ads to run on public buses, it cannot refuse to run an ad because it stirs controversy. The cancellation of SeaMAC’s ad amounted to censorship,” said ACLU-WA legal director Sarah Dunne.

The Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, a nonprofit grassroots organization that seeks to educate the public about U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, intended to place a paid advertisement on the outside of King County Metro buses. The ad’s text read “Israeli War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars at Work.”

SeaMAC submitted the ad in October, 2010 to Titan Outdoor LLC, the company that handles advertising on Metro buses. Titan informed SeaMAC a month later that the ad had been approved and accepted for placement on Metro buses. SeaMAC signed a contract to run the ad and paid Titan. The ad was scheduled to run on 12 Metro buses for four weeks.

King County had a long-established practice of publishing on its buses a wide variety and spectrum of ads containing non-commercial speech. For example, paid ads related to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza previously have run on Metro buses, as have ads with atheist messages. The SeaMAC ad was submitted and approved under King County’s written Advertising Policy concerning its practices and procedures of placing paid ads on buses.

The prospect of the ad generated an outpouring of strong opposition. On December 23, 2010, King County announced that the county now would not permit the ad to run. The county also announced that its existing Advertising Policy was no longer in effect and that it was immediately implementing a new interim policy. Later that day Titan formally notified SeaMAC that the previously accepted ad had been cancelled.

Representing SeaMAC are ACLU-WA cooperating attorneys Venkat Balasubramani of Focal PLLC and Jeffrey Grant of Skellenger Bender, PS, and ACLU-WA staff attorneys Sarah Dunne, Rose Spidell, and La Rond Baker.

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