Judge: AATA violated First Amendment by rejecting ad

By Steve Zoski, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 29, 2012

A federal judge in Flint ruled Friday in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union and Blaine Coleman, an Ann Arbor resident who sued the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority after it declined to run his advertisements advocating a boycott of Israel on their buses last year.

Last year Coleman submitted ads to the AATA which included an illustration of skull and bones accompanied by the statement, “Boycott ‘Israel’” and “Boycott Apartheid.” The AATA rejected the ads based on policy that allows it to turn down ads that ridicule people or are in poor taste.

In his ruling, Judge Mark Goldsmith said the AATA policy was vague and unconstitutional, noting that the First Amendment overpowers the organization’s discretionary advertising procedures. An additional federal hearing will now determine whether AATA will be required to run the ads.

Last year, the ACLU sent the AATA a letter decrying the policy, while the AATA declined attempts to handle the matter outside of court.

After further review by the AATA board of directors the same month, the AATA upheld its decision to reject the ads, and the ACLU responded with a lawsuit shortly after.

Dan Korobkin, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan who is representing Coleman, wrote in an e-mail interview Sunday that he was confident the judge would side with Coleman.

“If the First Amendment means anything, it means that the government cannot censor speech just because it is controversial, unpopular, or stirs people’s emotions,” Korobkin wrote. “That's what happened here.”

Korobkin wrote that because AATA receives public funding, it is especially responsible for complying with the First Amendment.

“Because the AATA is a government agency, it has to comply with the First Amendment,” Korobkin wrote. “So once it decides to run ads on its buses, it cannot pick and choose between the ads it likes and the ads it doesn’t like.”

Korobkin added that the buses have displayed ads for other controversial issues before.

“It can’t reject Mr. Coleman’s ad just because some people don’t like what he has to say,” Korobkin wrote.

Korobkin noted that he thinks Coleman should eventually be able to place his advertisements in the future.

“Now that the court has ruled in favor of Mr. Coleman’s First Amendment rights, the AATA should do the right thing and run Mr. Coleman’s ad just like it runs hundreds of other ads,” Korobkin said. “If it doesn't, the court has invited further briefing on what kind of court order should issue.”

Though Ann Arbor residents may be disconcerted by Coleman’s proposed ad, Korobkin wrote that the best response for people who disagree with Coleman's views on Israel is to simply exercise their own freedom to speak freely.

"Many people do not agree with Mr. Coleman’s views about Israel, and some people find those views deeply offensive,” Korobkin said. “But the appropriate response is for those people to use their First Amendment rights to speak back. It is not the government’s role to censor offensive speech."

AATA spokeswoman Mary Stasiak said in a statement that the bus company will await further guidance from the court.

"Late Friday afternoon the United States District Court issued a lengthy opinion about our policies concerning advertising on our buses," Stasiak said. "The parties have been asked by the court to submit briefs regarding the relief which the court might appropriately consider, and AATA will comply with the court’s request."

The Associated Press and Daily News Editor Adam Rubenfire contributed to this report.

Story updated: A statement from the AATA was added to this story at 2:50 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 1.