The ACLU of Washington today joined the legal team representing Working Washington in its lawsuit challenging Sound Transit’s refusal to run an ad it submitted in March. The nonprofit group is seeking to run advertising on light rail promoting good jobs for low-income workers at Sea-Tac Airport. Filed on April 5 in U.S. District Court, the lawsuit (Working Washington v. Sound Transit) says that Sound Transit’s rejection of the ad violates the agency’s policies and the First Amendment.
“A government agency that operates an advertising program open to a wide variety of messages cannot just leave it to the discretion of individual government officials to decide subjectively what is ‘controversial.’ What Sound Transit has done in rejecting the ‘Good Jobs’ ad is to censor a message without a reasonable basis,” said ACLU of Washington legal director Sarah Dunne.
The ad in question was submitted by Working Washington to call attention to the issue of low-wage jobs at Sea-Tac. The ad features three images: first class (with a picture of a wine glass on a plane), coach class (with a picture of the inside of a plane), and “poverty class” (with a photo of a man who still makes minimum wage after working more than 30 years at Sea-Tac. The ad’s tagline simply states, “Let’s make all airport jobs good jobs.”
Working Washington submitted the ad to the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (commonly known as Sound Transit), which operates an advertising program on its buses and trains. On March 6, Working Washington signed a contract to run the ad with Clear Channel, which manages Sound Transit’s ad program, and paid for the ad. But on March 20th, Sound Transit said it would not allow the ad to run and refunded the money, saying (through Clear Channel) that, “Sound Transit is not allowing political type ads on their buses or trains.”
Sound Transit’s Advertising Policy states that the agency controls ads displayed at or on its facilities, including “maintaining a position of neutrality on political, religious, and controversial matters.” Its Advertising Standards lists “political” material among 18 categories of restricted materials, and defines political ads and material as that which “promotes or appears to promote any candidate for office, any political party or promotes or implies position on any proposition, referendum, proposed or existing laws, or other ballot measures.”
“The Working Washington ad does not fit any of the grounds Sound Transit gives for prohibiting political ads. In rejecting it, the agency is misapplying its own policy,” said the ACLU-WA’s Sarah Dunne.
The suit contends that in operating its advertising program Sound Transit established a designated public forum for speech and cannot arbitrarily exclude speech based on its message. Sound Transit’s policy states it wants to remain neutral on controversial issues, but its policy does not define what “controversial speech” is.
In practice, Sound Transit has run a wide variety of ads on issues of public interest, including ones by Working Washington in 2011 with taglines “Our Bridges Need Work. So Do We” and “Stand Up for Good Jobs.” Sound Transit also has approved an ad by Planned Parenthood promoting condoms that said, “Where Did You Wear It? … Be Proud to Wear Protection.”
In refusing to run Working Washington’s “Good Jobs” ad, the agency is impermissibly rejecting speech based on its viewpoint and serving as an arbiter of what is controversial. The suit seeks to have the court issue an injunction to have Sound Transit run the ad.
Ironically, the ad “Let’s Make All Airport Jobs Good Jobs” has been approved for display inside the baggage claim area of Sea-Tac airport.
Working Washington is a non-profit coalition of individuals, neighborhood associations, immigrant groups, civil rights organizations, people of faith, and labor groups united for good jobs and a fair economy.
Representing Working Washington are ACLU-WA cooperating attorneys Mike Kipling and Marjorie Walter of the Kipling Law Group, ACLU-WA legal director Sarah Dunne and staff attorney La Rond Baker, and Dmitiri Iglitzin of Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP.