Last week, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority Board of Directors upheld its decision to refuse to run an anti-Israel advertisement on the sides of AATA buses despite opposition from the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ad — an illustration of a skeletal spider-like creature surrounded by the words “Boycott ‘Israel’” and “Boycott Apartheid” — was submitted to AATA by local pro-Palestinian activist Blaine Coleman, according to a Nov. 17 Ann Arbor Chronicle article. In August, Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU Fund of Michigan, ACLU Staff Attorney Daniel Korobkin and David Thomas, president of the ACLU’s Washtenaw branch, sent a letter to the AATA board arguing that the AATA’s advertising policy violates the First Amendment.
The ACLU’s letter cited a 1998 case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled against the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which was attempting to reject a pro-union ad.
The letter challenged AATA’s policy, which states that it does not intend to create a public forum for discussion through its commercial advertising. The ACLU cited previous advertisments that had run on the side of AATA buses and that had created a “public forum” — including ads referencing HIV, housing discrimination, domestic violence and religious institutions. The letter continued that these precedents prohibit the AATA from banning Coleman’s ad.
In the letter, Steinberg, Korobkin and Thomas called the AATA policy subjective and vague.
“AATA has created a public forum and cannot now exclude Mr. Coleman’s ad,” the letter stated.
The AATA’s policy requires that advertising be “in good taste” and uphold “aesthetic standards.” Additionally, it prohibits advertising that “defames or is likely to hold up to scorn or ridicule a person or a group of persons.”
AATA CEO Michael Ford wrote in an e-mail interview that the ACLU acknowledged that Coleman’s ad may be offensive to some people.
“The standard is viewpoint-neutral, and is designed to achieve the judicially-approved objective of ensuring ‘a certain minimum level of discourse that is applicable to everyone,” Ford wrote.
Ford added that AATA’s advertising policy strives to generate revenue for the company and provide riders a pleasant and safe experience.
“AATA believes that the application of its policy in this situation is consistent with its public purpose as well as any obligation it may have under the First Amendment,” Ford wrote.
AATA legal counsel Jerry Lax attended last week’s meeting at which the board affirmed its advertising policy and its decision to reject Coleman’s ad, the Ann Arbor Chronicle reported. An ensuing resolution requested that the ACLU and Coleman continue to discuss the advertising policy with AATA.
Approximately $80,000 of AATA’s estimated $29.4 million in revenue comes from bus advertising, according to the Chronicle.