In November 2005, the ACLU and the Pittsburgh League of Young Voters called the Port Authority to place an ad on city buses. This summer it will finally run — after a court battle that has cost the cash-strapped agency at least a half million dollars.
The rejection of the ad — which informs those previously convicted of a crime of their voting rights — became the subject of a lengthy 2006 federal lawsuit that the authority ultimately lost. The Port Authority was ordered to run the advertisement and pay more than $446,300 in legal fees and costs to the ACLU.
City Paper has requested the total cost of PAT's defense, but that information wasn't provided as of press time.
While the ACLU is still designing the ad, it's the text and topic that sparked the controversy. The ad asks, "Been to jail or prison? In PA, you have the right to vote. The registration deadline for the 2012 general election is October 9." The ad also includes information on how to register.
It will be placed inside 50 buses and run from July to September.
"We would have been thrilled to run these ads in 2006 when we first planned to do it," says Sara Rose, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "We're paying the authority [$3,450] to run them. It's unfortunate we had to wait so long.
"We hope the ads will do what our intention was, which is to educate people who have the right to vote in Pennsylvania about that right."
The lawsuit even outlasted the Pittsburgh League of Young Voters, which has disbanded. As an additional result of the action, the PAT board on April 27 approved a new advertising policy.
"The main directive we got is that we really need more specificity in what we could and couldn't accept," says Port Authority CEO Steve Bland. "It's definitely a stronger policy for sure."
At the time of the lawsuit, the authority's policy, drafted in 1998, was one paragraph and stated in general terms that it wouldn't accept ads that were, among other things, non-commercial, offensive to riders, political in nature or conveyed political messages.
But the ACLU and the League argued that "the policy is belied by the agency's practice, which has been to run many non-commercial ads ..." such as those from the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission and the Fair Housing Partnership.
In 2009, a federal judge ruled that the rejection amounted to a violation of the ACLU's and the League's First Amendment rights, and ordered the agency to run the ad. In 2011, an appeals court upheld the ruling and over the winter, federal judges levied $446,357.77 in charges.
Bland says he's confident that the new, four-page ad policy explains more thoroughly what the agency won't accept. Among the prohibited ads are religious messages, tobacco advertisements and ads that depict violence or sexual conduct.
The policy also states that it won't accept ads "political in nature" or those that contain political messages including ads for political parties or those "involving an issue reasonably deemed by the Authority to be political ...(such as ... abortion, gun control, gay marriage or Marcellus Shale drilling.)" It also stipulates, however, that the agency isn't prohibited from accepting "non-political public service announcements or messages" and states that "certain types" of non-commercial ads will be accepted, as well as those advertising alcohol sales.
The policy is based on a survey of other transit agencies, including Philadelphia's Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority. While advertising revenues make up a small portion of the Port Authority's budget — less than $2 million in a $370 million annual budget — Bland says the authority can use any money it can get.
"If I saw $1.5 million on the street," Bland say, "I'd pick it up."