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SEPTA Sued for Banning Ads About Housing Discrimination

By: Andrea Sears

PHILADELPHIA – Banning ads about controversial issues is a violation of free-speech rights – that’s the claim of a lawsuit filed against the nation’s sixth-largest public transit system.

The Center for Investigative Reporting has compiled data showing racial disparities in home mortgage lending in 61 American cities, including Philadelphia. But when it sought to highlight the results with an ad campaign, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority refused to display the ads on its trains and buses.

Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, says SEPTA’s policies banning ads on political and controversial social issues turn the First Amendment on its head.

“Political speech and public debate get the most constitutional protection,” says Tack-Hooper. “But SEPTA’s policy essentially says the more important the speech, the less SEPTA wants it on its subways and buses.”

She says in letters exchanged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, SEPTA explained its policy as an attempt to keep out hate speech.

But Tack-Hooper points out that the courts already have told the authority it could not ban an anti-Muslim ad campaign sponsored by a group called the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

“Of course, even those AFDI ads, which I think most SEPTA riders would probably agree are racist and gross, didn’t bring the trains to a grinding halt,” says Tack-Hooper. “They didn’t have much of an effect at all on the operation of the transit system.”

She notes that the City of Philadelphia, which controls ad space on city bus shelters, has agreed to display the CIR ads. Tack-Hooper adds that the Transportation Authority has other ways to respond to hate speech in advertising that are far less extreme than banning protected speech.

“For example, SEPTA could use its ad space to put up its own message of tolerance and disavow groups like AFDI that might advertise on SEPTA,” says Tack-Hooper.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

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