ACLU

ACLU Sues D.C. Metro for Rejecting Ads, Including One With Text of the First Amendment

A dumb government rule to protect subway riders from controversial ads gets predictable results.

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Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing the D.C.'s dysfunctional and much-loathed transit authority for rejecting subway ads the government deemed too controversial, including one that contained the text of the First Amendment.

The ACLU announced Wednesday that it was filing suit against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) on behalf of four plaintiffs, including itself, who were denied advertising space by the government agency. The other plaintiffs are People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a local abortion provider, and noted troll Milo Yiannopoulos. (Something for everyone to hate!)

All of the groups had ads rejected by Metro for running afoul of its policy against advertisements that are "issues-oriented" or "intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions." Metro rejected several ACLU ads in 2016 and 2017, for example, that displayed the text of the First Amendment in several languages. In Yiannopoulos' case, Metro placed ads for his recent simulacrum of book, but took them down after it received complaints.

The ACLU argues the rules are unconstitutionally vague and restrictive, violating the First Amendment.

"The four plaintiffs in this case perfectly illustrate the indivisibility of the First Amendment," Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, said in a statement. "In its zeal to avoid hosting offensive and hateful speech, the government has eliminated speech that makes us think, including the text of the First Amendment itself. The ACLU could not more strongly disagree with the values that Milo Yiannopoulos espouses, but we can't allow the government to pick and choose which viewpoints are acceptable."

Metro adopted those guidelines after anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller attempted to purchase ads on Metro in 2015 that showed a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed.

The new rules' results were entirely predictable: Metro employees, tasked with determining what is too controversial for the mores of morning commuters, restricted speech based on undefinable terms and inconsistent guidelines. They err on the side of censorship because their jobs depend on it, and because there's always someone somewhere waiting to be offended.

Note that Metro does not consider the ubiquitous ads for Pentagon contractors such as Northrop Grumman and Raytheon to be "issue-oriented," even though they are clearly placed to influence legislators and bureaucrats, because those ads have a profit motive at heart. Apparently the text of the First Amendment is a policy issue on which sides disagree, but an ad for a taxpayer-funded F-35 at the Pentagon Metro stop is just a marketing opportunity.

The ACLU's lawsuit is a laudable continuation of the sort of work that defined the organization: fighting for free speech in cases that others lack either the principles or the stomach to stand up for.

It's all the more important because there is increasing pressure to abandon free speech as an unfettered good—and the pressure isn't just coming from the outside. One ACLU lawyer, Chase Strangio, released a personal statement on Twitter yesterday explaining why he thinks the ACLU was wrong to defend Yiannopoulos' First Amendment rights. His statement included a curious sentence: "Though his ability to speak is protected by the First Amendment, I don't believe in protecting principle for the sake of principle in all cases."

That's a confused way of saying he's unprincipled, since the entire point of principles is they don't change according to circumstance.

Fortunately, there is still enough principle left at the ACLU to fight for controversial speech and against dumb government rules.

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  1. Supposedly the 1st amendment doesn’t apply to public displays of pornography, so your rights supposedly aren’t being violated if you’re not allowed to post images of sex acts on public billboards. I mean, hell, it’s not even issues oriented or intended to sway opinion. It’s just not allowed because people would be offended, which, of course, is the worst thing that could happen. So if an ad can be pulled because it offends someone, then an ad can be pulled because it offends someone. If you have to take all ads, then you have to take all ads.

  2. Note that Metro does not consider the ubiquitous ads for Pentagon contractors such as Northrop Grumman and Raytheon to be “issue-oriented,” even though they are clearly placed to influence legislators and bureaucrats

    LOL Legislators don’t ride Metro.

  3. I thought the first amendment was a fig leaf for racism.

    1. That depends on the size of the fig leaf.

  4. policy against advertisements that are “issues-oriented” or “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions.

    Aren’t all ads intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions, even if the issue is something like “I should buy more Pepsi”? If the subject of the ad was a subject of universal agreement, there would be no need for the ad.

    1. damn, came here to say that, even use the Pepsi example. “I prefer Coke, why do I have to endure all these Pepsi ads trying to change my opinion?”

  5. there is increasing pressure to abandon free speech as an unfettered good

    seems the ACLU plays both sides of this game.

  6. Whether the individual ads were offensive or not, “Strangio says the fact that they promote Milo is enough that the ACLU should not be getting involved. “I don’t believe in protecting principle for the sake of principle in all cases,” he said.”

    For Frith’s sake.

    Perhaps Chase Strangio should leave the ACLU, since that organization’s philosophy seems to be at odds with what appears to be the “situational ethics” Chase Strangio is employing here.

    The ACLU said in their announcement of the case, “So, to anyone who’d be outraged to see Mr. Yiannopoulos’ advertisement – please recognize that if he comes down, so do we all.”

  7. The ACLU could not more strongly disagree with the values that Milo Yiannopoulos espouses

    ?_?

    1. now we know where Robby went.

  8. All of the groups had ads rejected by Metro for running afoul of its policy against advertisements that are “issues-oriented” or “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions.”

    So the actual policy is no ads at all? Because there are varying opinions on this being Thursday.

    1. Thank god it’s Friday

    2. Because there are varying opinions on this being Thursday.

      Reason, where I’m never the only one…

      1. It is Thorsdagr, is is not?

        I suppose other western traditions would prefer dies Jovis or hemera Dios, yet I am not well versed in such things.

        Charles only pawn… in Game of Life.

        1. “hemera Dios” = / not-= (?) the God of Hemorrhoids?

          (Not a God that I would worship; I am asking for a friend!)

    3. It isn’t Thursday.

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