Federal Court: D.C. Transit Authority Violated a Christian Group’s Freedom of Speech By Rejecting Ads — the ACLU Agrees

Under the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) advertising guidelines (PDF), ads “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying public opinions” are prohibited.

Aren’t ads supposed to “influence members of the public” to spend money, for example? And what “issue” doesn’t have varying public opinions?

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia must have had the same questions, because it ruled that this particular prohibition violated the First Amendment rights of a Texas non-profit called WallBuilder Presentations.

According to First Liberty Institute, WallBuilder “seeks to educate the public about the role that the Founders’ Christian faith played in the creation of the nation and the drafting of the Constitution.”

The court gave WMATA a lesson in constitutional freedom:

The Court ruled that Guideline 9, which prohibits “[a]dvertisements intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions,” is “not a reasonable restriction on speech.” Calling the guidelines “vague,” Judge Howell wrote that the guideline fails to provide “objective, workable standards” that could be reasonably applied, a requirement under the First Amendment.

WMATA, as a government agency, cannot ban private speech based on viewpoint.

“To be clear,” Judge Beryl Howell wrote (PDF), “WMATA is permitted to retain considerable discretion in evaluating the intent and purpose of an ad,” but these standards are not objective or workable.

Barack Obama appointed Judge Howell to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The ACLU, of all places, agrees with WallBuilder and the court.

“In a democracy, the government has no right to pick and choose which viewpoints are acceptable,” said Arthur Spitzer, Senior Counsel at the ACLU-D.C. “This case is about expanding everyone’s freedom to express their views without unreasonable government interference.”

WMATA previously approved ads for the abortion drug Plan B and the COVID vaccine, both of which definitely have “varying public opinions.” But the agency rejected ads about the Founders’ Christian faith.

Photo credit: By MJW15 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, link

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