A leading civil rights group in the United States is suing Washington, DC’s public transportation company after the organisation rejected advertisements featuring the First Amendment — the portion of the US Constitution that establishes freedom of speech in America.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed the lawsuit after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) deemed its ad featuring the text of the First Amendment in three languages to be “controversial”. Three other advertisements from separate interests were also represented as a part of the lawsuit.
“This case highlights the consequences of the government’s attempt to suppress all controversial speech on public transit property,” Arthur Spitzer, the legal director for the ACLU in Washington, said in a press release. “The First Amendment protects the speech of everyone from discriminatory government censorship, whether you agree with the message or not.
The ACLU’s ad showed the First Amendment written in Arabic, English, and Spanish. The other rejected ads included one from animal rights group PETA advocating for a vegan diet, one promoting the controversial book of far-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos, and another from women’s health care collective Carafem advertising a 10-week abortion pill.
"In 2015, WMATA’s Board of Directors changed its advertising forum to a nonpublic forum and adopted commercial advertising guidelines that prohibit issue-oriented ads, including political, religious and advocacy ads," Sherri Ly, a spokeswoman for WMATA, told The Independent in a statement. "WMATA intends to vigorously defend its commercial advertising guidelines, which are reasonable and view-point neutral."
Mr Yiannopoulos’s advertisement was initially approved by WMATA, but was later taken out of the transit system after complaints from riders. The far-right provocateur was forced to self-publish the book in question after a controversy surrounding statements of his that were interpreted as promoting pedophilia. Mr Yiannopoulos — who has roused controversy for other comments seen as sexist or xenophobic before — has repeatedly denied those interpretations of his comments.
“I'm glad that the Aclu has decided to stop aiding the spread of sharia law and their usual wrongheaded social-justice crusades to tackle a real civil rights issue. I'm joined in this lawsuit by fellow plaintiffs including pharmaceutical villains and vitamin-deficient vegans, but I'm no stranger to odd bedfellows,” Mr Yiannopoulos said in a statement provided to The Independent. “Free speech isn't about only supporting speech you agree with, it is about supporting all speech — especially the words of your enemies. Strong opponents keep us honest.”
A Peta spokesperson did not directly address Mr Yiannopoulos’s characterization of their group, but noted as well that, “these types of cases make strange bedfellows. Freedom of speech applies to everyone, and the government.”
“Peta’s ads ask people to make the compassionate choice to go vegan, and ask the military to stop stabbing goats and shooting pigs in live tissue training. These views are hardly controversial as more people are adopting a vegan diet all the time, and the Coast Guard has recently ended live tissue training,” Gabriel Walters, the Peta spokesman, told The Independent. “WMATA won’t run Peta ads but it has no problem selling ad space for fast food, fur coats, circuses and other corporations that abuse and kill millions of animals every year. That’s viewpoint discrimination. It’s wrong and it’s illegal.”
WMATA’s past decisions to ban controversial advertisements have often resulted in lawsuits, and critics say that the guidelines are too broad and aren’t applied evenly.
The WMATA cited guidelines prohibiting advertisements meant to influence the public on issues with varying opinions, advertisements intended to influence public policy, medical and health-related messages, and advertisements that support or oppose industry positions or goals.
Neither the ACLU or Carafem responded requests to comment on Mr Yiannopoulos’s characterizations of their organisations.