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Transit Systems, Advertising, and Free Speech: Lawsuit Puts Big Debate to the Test

The ACLU is bringing a lawsuit against SEPTA, saying the transit agency's advertising policy runs afoul of the First Amendment. Some $16 million in annual revenue is at stake.
May 3, 2018, 7am PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) generates $16 million a year in revenue by allowing companies to advertise on buses, trains, and in stations around the system. That flow of cash introduces ethical questions, however, that have precipitated a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

"The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed suit Wednesday morning against SEPTA on behalf of the Center for Investigative Reporting," reports Jim Saksa. The Center for Investigative Journalism, "wanted to run a series of ads highlighting a story on racial disparities in mortgage lending," according to Saksa, but SEPTA rejected the ads for being 'political in nature' and for and for 'expressing or advocating an opinion, position or viewpoint on matters of public debate about economic, political, religious, historical or social issues.'

SEPTA's role as a government entity complicates the question of whether these advertisements are free speech. SEPTA has released an email in response to the lawsuit, saying its advertising policy is constitutionally sound, but now a judge will decide if that's true.

"If the ACLU wins, SEPTA may decide to end advertisements rather than place ads that scare off riders," according to Saksa. "In that case, the cost of free speech will be no speech at all, and a loss of $16 million in revenue."

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Published on Wednesday, May 2, 2018 in PlanPhilly
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