On the Westside, running paid advertisements on the sides of the Big Blue Bus is how AIDS Project Los Angeles has—until this year—promoted its biggest fundraiser, AIDS Walk Los Angeles.
Informed late last year that Santa Monica's transit agency would begin enforcing an overlooked policy barring non-commercial ads from appearing on the buses, including ones for the AIDS Walk fundraiser, the nonprofit took its protest all the way to the mayor's office.
It worked. At the mayor's request, the Santa Monica City Council is expected to consider on Tuesday night an interim exemption to the rule, which in part, is meant to prevent controversy, such as what unfurled this summer when ads referring to Arabs as "savage" were plastered on public buses in San Francisco, according to Big Blue Bus Chief Administrative Officer Joe Stitcher.
Santa Monica's rules weren't an issue each of the past five years when the AIDS Project opened accounts worth between $50,000 and $70,000, according to an estimation by Executive Director Craig Thompson.
But during a routine review of policies last year, the Santa Monica City Attorney's Office found the Big Blue Bus wasn't following its rules. The transit agency agency was prompted to send eight letters to organizations that had previously advertised but whose materials didn't qualify, said Stitcher.
He said the AIDS Walk is a worthwhile cause. "We’re not singling them out. We’re merely adhering to our existing advertising guidelines."
Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus rules say ads must be "commercial," so anti-bullying messages and public service announcements about childhood obesity aren't likely to fly any longer.
"This is just a bad decision," said director Thompson. "All of the public service messages that the city ought to be promoting… that would help the citizens of Santa Monica… they’re squashing."
The policy also prohibits ads that would cause the bus "to become a public forum for the dissemination, debate, or discussion of any such issues" or that promote alcohol, tobacco or gun sales.
Part of the mayor's request will have staffers look at free speech rights. In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was recently found by a federal judge to have violated the First Amendment rights of the pro-Isreal group that sought to advertise on its buses.
"The commercial guidelines enable us to control the types of ads that we may run," Stitcher said. "Once you’re an open forum you can’t regulate content— you have to take all comers. I don’t know what group you find personally offensive, but suddenly you could find them advertising on our bus."