What’s Commercial and What’s Political on Public Transportation?
ATLANTA–In the latest battle over what can and cannot be advertised on government-owned public transportation, the transit authority of Pinellas County in Florida will decide later this month whether to limit such advertising to messages that propose commercial transactions.
The debate arose after Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s directors responded to complaints from the Church of Scientology by removing anti-Scientology messages from the sides of county buses that passed the church’s Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Fla.
The county forbids political advertising on public transportation.
The ads were purchased by Former Scientologists Speaking Out, which asserts its First Amendment rights were violated when the ads were removed. “When you look at the board’s definition of political advertising, it is limited to that for candidates running for office,” said Ken Dandar, the ex-Scientologists’ attorney. “They now have a nonprofit organization that is willing to sue them if they don’t do the right thing.”
Scientology lawyer Paul Johnson said the PSTA should move to strike any noncommercial ads from public transportation, or else the county could see “hate organizations like the KKK” running ads on its buses.
“This is important stuff under the First Amendment, but the American Association of Advertising Agencies believes that advertisers should be able to advertise,” said John Kamp, a Washington, D.C., attorney at the 4A’s.
“I run a business. I don’t want to limit commerce, but this has created a real problem in Clearwater,” said Bob Clark, a PSTA board member and Clearwater commissioner. “There’s no question in any person’s mind that these were attacks, and as a public official . . . when I saw them, I was very upset.”
Johnson said recent U.S. Court of Appeals decisions in similar cases, which have come down on different sides of the fence in Phoenix and New York, hinge on whether the ads are considered to be appearing in a designated public or nonpublic forum.
A Jan. 15 memo from PSTA lawyer Alan Zimmet said the combination of those decisions suggests that courts will allow ad restrictions when public transportation agencies prove their primary purpose is to make money and not take a side politically.
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