(CN) – Philadelphia cannot block an airport advertisement that highlights how America holds a quarter of the world’s prisoners, a federal judge ruled.
Part of a public-awareness campaign that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People created in 2011, the ad in question highlights a report titled “Misplaced Priorities,” in which the NAACP found that the United States overspends on incarceration at the expense of education.
“Welcome to America, home to 5 percent of the world’s people and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” the proposed ad reads. “Let’s build a better America together. NAACP.org/smartandsafe.”
The NAACP wanted to run the campaign in airports across the country, including Philadelphia International Airport, which lacked written policy about airport advertising but nevertheless rejected the NAACP’s submission.
In a 2011 complaint, the NAACP alleged violations of the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 7, of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Though Philadelphia agreed to post the advertisement at the airport for a limited time, the city adopted a March 2012 written policy that refused to post political or noncommercial ads.
The NAACP noted that previous noncommercial, potentially controversial ads that Philadelphia had accepted included some for the World Wildlife Federation, the National Parent-Teacher Association, and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
After refusing to dismiss the action on May 20, U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe awarded the NAACP summary judgment on Aug. 1.
Philadelphia cannot show that the policy aims to maintain a “family-friendly” and “noncontroversial” atmosphere, according to the ruling.
“The NAACP has pointed to considerable evidence that supports the conclusion that to display noncommercial ads, like the NAACP’s, would be perfectly compatible with a multipurpose terminal containing many adult-oriented, potentially controversial media,” the 35-page opinion states. “By contrast, the city has failed to demonstrate why allowing noncommercial advertisements would diminish advertising revenue, diminish the airport’s efficacy, or make the airport a meaningfully less positive, family-oriented place than permitting commercial and city-sponsored advertisements only. Therefore, the NAACP is entitled to summary judgment on its First Amendment claim with respect to the written policy.”
Judge Rufe further held that there may be an unconstitutional, unwritten policy of rejecting ads that do not promote a positive image of the city and the airport.
“Of course, the city and the airport may advocate for Philadelphia, exercising full-throatedly their right to government speech,” Rufe wrote. “But they cannot create a forum for private speech and then exclude speakers they do not agree with. The city allows nongovernment actors to speak in the airport so long as they toe the government’s line. By stifling speech that the city dislikes, the city risks creating an environment where nongovernment speakers whistle in unison a happy, secretly government-sanctioned tune. The First Amendment furthers our ‘profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,’ even when speech ‘include[s] vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.’ The city’s unwritten advertising policy falls far short of that lofty goal.”
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