Transit Agency Ban on Issue-Oriented Ads Overridden by Federal Court

June 7, 2024 by Tom Ramstack
Transit Agency Ban on Issue-Oriented Ads Overridden by Federal Court
(WMATA Photograph by Larry Levine)

WASHINGTON — The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority can no longer ban ads bearing political issue messages under a recent federal court ruling.

The ruling was based on a lawsuit that a religious group called WallBuilders filed against the transit agency.

WallBuilders is a nonprofit organization that tries to educate the public about how the Christian faith of early American patriots influenced the creation of the United States and its Constitution.

One ad WallBuilders wanted displayed on buses and in transit stations showed George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. A message at the bottom said, “Christian? To find out about the faith of our founders, go to WallBuilders.com.”

A second ad was a replica of the famed Howard Chandler Christy painting showing the nation’s founders signing the Constitution in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. A WallBuilders’ logo and QR code were displayed at the bottom.

WMATA banned the ads after invoking Guideline 9 of its own rules, which prohibits messages “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions.” 

WallBuilders, which was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, called the ban a violation of First Amendment rights to free speech. The organization filed its lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell largely agreed with WallBuilders.

She said in her ruling that although Guideline 9 was designed to be content neutral and nondiscriminatory, WMATA has applied it inconsistently.

In one example, WMATA allowed an Instacart ad promoting an over-the-counter contraceptive. In another case, WMATA rejected an ad from a women’s health care group for an abortion pill. 

Any restrictions on free speech must describe “objective, workable standards” that can be reasonably applied to ads, the court ruling said. WMATA’s failure to meet the standard means its ban violates the First Amendment.

However, the judge said WMATA could continue to enforce its Guideline 12. It says, “Advertisements that promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief are prohibited.”

The court’s ruling in Washington is one of several examples nationwide of transit agencies caught in disputes over free speech versus freedom of religion.

In Tampa, Florida, a synagogue wanted to advertise an upcoming Hanukkah celebration with an ad that displayed a menorah. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority rejected the ad.

An appeals court ruled this year that the transit agency’s ban on religious ads violated the First Amendment.

Similar bans have been implemented in New York City and in Fort Worth, Texas. 

The Washington case is WallBuilders v. WMATA.

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