The founder and producer of AIDS Walk Los Angeles and two fellow Santa Monica residents sued the city Monday, challenging the constitutionality of its policy barring non-commercial ads on its fleet of Big Blue Buses.
The policy has been on the books for the past decade, but was only recently enforced. The city is in the midst of reviewing the rules after protests from the AIDS Walk organizers earlier this month, but has denied requests to temporarily allow the ads because that would open the buses to becoming "public forums," permitting expression of all kinds under the First Amendment—including offensive messages—the City Attorney's office has said.
Craig Miller, who began producing AIDS Walk Los Angeles in 1985, and fellow plaintiffs Lisa Brisse and Paloma Bennett filed the suit in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging violation of free speech. Brisse is a businesswoman who has lived in Santa Monica for 18 years. Bennett, a 20-year-old Santa Monica High School graduate, has resided in the city for 15 years and took part in AWLA from 2008-11.
They are asking a judge to find that the city of Santa Monica's policy is unconstitutional and for an injunction banning Santa Monica from refusing to accept the AIDS Walk advertising.
AIDS Walk Ads Pulled From Santa Monica Buses
The plaintiffs "believe that without their advertising on defendant's buses, AWLA and those who benefit from it will be negatively impacted in terms of funds raised and distributed, numbers of participants and communication of the message of AWLA and AIDS Project Los Angeles."
The walk through Los Angeles and West Hollywood is APLA's largest fundraising event of the year, according to the lawsuit.
According to the suit, AIDS Walk has spent between $27,000 and $40,000 on Big Blue Bus campaigns annually for the past six years. (Earlier estimations provided by AIDS Project LA Executive Director Craig Thompson were between $50,000 and $70,000 annually.)
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Manhattan was found to have violated the First Amendment this summer when it rejected ads from a pro-Isreal group that said, "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man."
The New York transit agency permits noncommercial ads so long as they don't demean individuals or groups on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin.
Though in his ruling a federal judge wrote the MTA's "goal of preventing ads on city bus exteriors from being used as a medium for abuse and division in this diverse metropolis is entirely laudable," he also said the ad "is afforded the highest level of protection under the First Amendment," the New York Times reported.