These days, you might expect the cash-strapped Port Authority of Allegheny County to take a few bucks from just about anybody. But instead of raking in advertising revenues, the transit agency might expect to shell out money for refusing ads.
In August 2006, the League of Young Voters Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit after the agency refused to accept paid ads seeking to push voter registration. On March 30, U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry rejected Port Authority's request to have the case dismissed. The agency has until April 13 to decide whether to admit the allegations against it or fight them out in court
"We ask [the Port Authority] to stop discriminating on the basis of viewpoints," says Sara Rose, staff attorney of ACLU of Greater Pittsburgh. While private companies have broad discretion to allow or prohibit ads, she says, "Port Authority can't apply their standards discriminatorily because they're a government body."
The League's ads would have targeted young and disenfranchised populations, especially former felons who may not know that a 2000 state court decision restored their right to vote. The Port Authority declined the ads, claiming a longstanding policy banning ads of noncommercial content, Rose says. But the ACLU says it has found buses sporting ads from local nonprofits including anti-poverty group Just Harvest and the Women's Law Center. On the day this story was filed, this reporter spotted an ad cautioning parents against child abuse on a Downtown-bound 71A.
"We'd have no comment on any current lawsuits," says Port Authority spokesman Bob Grove.
"The bus is an effective way of delivering the message," says the league's spokesperson, Jennifer England. Instead of bus ads, six billboards were put up for $2,000 before last year's mid-term elections. But the League "would definitely be interested in advertising" on the bus in the future, England adds.
If the Port Authority has a change of heart, Rose says the ACLU will be willing to discuss a settlement, which would include attorney fees and additional costs incurred in putting up the billboards as opposed to ads.
Barb Feige, director of the local ACLU chapter, wonders why the ads were ever turned down in the first place. The Port Authority is "screaming poverty and cutting buses, instead of capitalizing on advertising," says Feige. "It's appalling."