ACLU Sues Ann Arbor Bus System for Censoring Controversial Ad

November 28, 2011

DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today against the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA) for violating the First Amendment by refusing to allow a local activist to purchase a controversial bus advertisement that advocates for the boycott of Israel.

“In a free and democratic society, we cannot allow the government to suppress political speech, even if it is controversial, makes some uncomfortable, or stirs our emotions,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “The solution is never to censor unpopular speech, but to allow others the same opportunity to speak.”

Blaine Coleman, an Ann Arbor activist, wants to run an ad on the side or the back of an AATA bus that says “Boycott Israel, Boycott Apartheid.” AATA has rejected the ad because it allegedly violates AATA’s advertising policy, which mandates that “all advertising must be considered in good taste” and prohibits ads that are “likely to hold up to scorn or ridicule a person or group of persons.”

In August, the ACLU wrote a letter to AATA and explained that its advertising policy is unconstitutional. Since then, the ACLU has attempted to work with AATA to resolve this matter without litigation. In mid-November, AATA attorneys finally responded to the ACLU’s repeated requests stating that they will not run Coleman’s ad.

Public records obtained by the ACLU reveal that AATA accepts advertisements about many important issues, including local politics, race, and religion and has run the following ads:

  • “In Washtenaw County black babies are 3x more likely to die than white babies.”
  • Two political ads supporting candidates for district judge.
  • “Breastfeeding makes babies smarter.”
  • An ad for NorthRidge Church that reads: “NorthRidge Church is For Hypocrites. NorthRidge Church is For Fakes. NorthRidge Church is For Liars. NorthRidge Church is For Losers.”

“Once a public agency decides to allow some people to speak, it can’t pick and choose between the speech that it likes and the speech that it doesn’t,” said Korobkin. “By allowing some messages, yet censoring Mr. Coleman, AATA is doing exactly what the First Amendment is designed to prohibit.”

The ACLU of Michigan’s lawsuit argues that AATA’s policy is vague and overly broad and asks a judge to strike it down as unconstitutional for violating the First Amendment right to free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. The lawsuit asks for a court order requiring AATA to treat Coleman’s ad the same way it treats all other ads.

“For generations, boycotts have been an effective tool to raise awareness and effect change, and I personally believe that a call to boycott Israel is the best way to empower the Palestinian people,” said Coleman. “However, you can't have a boycott if the government won't allow you to speak like everyone else.”

The ACLU of Michigan has a long tradition of advocating for the right of all individuals to express their opinions, including those that are unpopular. Earlier this year, the ACLU of Michigan filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of Pastor Terry Jones who was jailed for not paying a peace bond in reaction to his planned protest of an area mosque and Sharia law. In 2009, the ACLU of Michigan successfully challenged the prison sentence of Rev. Edward Pinkney for writing a newspaper editorial stating that God would “smite” a local judge if he did not change his ways.

In addition to Korobkin, Coleman is represented by Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director.

 

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