Judge approves AATA decision to not run controversial ad

By Aaron Guggenheim, Managing News Editor
Published June 6, 2013

After almost two years of legal battles, Federal Judge Mark Goldsmith has ruled the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority will not have to run a controversial advertisement on their vehicles.

Blaine Coleman, an anti-Israel activist and Ann Arbor resident, sued the AATA in November 2011 after he was denied permission to run ads, which included a drawing of a spider crushing skulls along with statements such as “Boycott ‘Israel’” and “Boycott Apartheid.”

The American Civil Liberties Union litigated on Coleman’s behalf, arguing that Coleman’s first amendment rights were violated because the AATA advertising policy made advertisements on its vehicles a public forum: a space where free speech has few limitations aside from time, place and manner of speech.

It was held in September that the AATA policy did indeed constitute a public forum and that the denial of Coleman’s ad was unconstitutional. The AATA then revised its policy in conjunction with a precedential 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that allowed transportation companies to restrict ads of a political nature.

The new AATA policy created a limited public forum, one in which free speech can be narrowed, and Goldsmith asked the AATA to review Coleman’s ad under its new policy. On Tuesday, he upheld the decision not to run the ad.

Kate Klaus, an AATA lawyer who spent two years working on the case, said she was happy with the decision after a “long fight.”

“I think it is a good decision and that the AATA did the right thing in amending its bylaws to comply with what the court found in September,” Klaus said. “The judge was careful and very conservative and followed precedent.”

Klaus said the ruling affords riders a non-threatening environment.

“I do think that public buses should be able to restrict advertisements so that if you are riding the bus you are not having someone target hate speech right at you as a rider or speech that makes you feel uncomfortable,” Klaus said.

She said the new policy — which states that riders will be “afforded a safe and pleasant environment” and prohibits ads of a political nature or ones which hold riders to scorn and ridicule — clearly prohibits Coleman’s ad.

Mary Stasiak, a spokeswoman for the AATA, said it was satisfied with Goldsmith’s ruling.

“We are pleased that the court has made this decision and we understand that we have the authority to regulate ads that go on our buses and we will continue to do so in a fair and even way,” Stasiak said.

Dan Korobkin, a staff attorney for the ACLU and Coleman’s legal representative, said although he was glad that the AATA had revised its previously unconstitutional policy, he felt that the court should have ordered it to run Coleman’s ad.

“(The) AATA can’t just change its policy and retroactively apply it, the proper remedy for when speech is censored like this, unconstitutionally, would be for the bus company to run the ad,” Korobkin said.

Korobkin said he felt the court’s decision had suppressed free speech.

“We are disappointed that the court did not order the AATA to run the ad because it is not the government’s role to censor speech even when the speech is controversial, offensive or unpopular,” he said.

The ACLU and Korobkin are contemplating an appeal but “have not come to a conclusion.”