Federal Judge Allows Animal-Testing Watchdog to Run Bus Ads in Richmond

Greater Richmond Transit Company buses. (Photo via GRTC Transit System)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Citing an inconsistent advertising policy, a federal judge in Virginia is forcing Richmond’s public bus system to carry a taxpayer-watchdog group’s advertisement with a message opposing federally funded animal testing. 

White Coat Waste Project, a DC-based group which aims to “drain the swamp” by promoting the end of “federal spending that hurts animals and Americans” filed their suit in late 2017. In a report released shortly before filing, the group claimed the Richmond-based Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center was conducting tax payer-funded research on animals.

They aimed to purchase advertising on the city’s bus system, the Greater Richmond Transit Company, to advertise their campaign to end the practice.

The group applied for the advertisements but were denied after the system cited a nearly 50-year-old policy banning political ads. 

But in a 76-page opinion released Saturday U.S. District Judge M. Hannah Lauck, an appointee of President Barack Obama, criticized the authority’s arbitrary enforcement of the political ban and ordered the group’s ads to be accepted. 

“GRTC’s Advertising Policy offers an unmoored use of the word ‘political’ without definition, and it offers no guidance whatsoever as to what ‘political,’ ‘political action group,’ or ‘public service announcement’ could encompass,” Lauck wrote, pointing to the fact that other groups, such as the U.S. Army and a local spay and neuter your pets campaign, were granted advertising space. 

“No person of ordinary intelligence could understand what speech the Policy prohibits,” she added.

The suit is one of a growing number of complaints across the nation challenging the legality of municipal rules keeping political ads off buses and other transit system infrastructure. 

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, rejected an appeal from the Archdiocese of Washington after it made a similar claim against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, affirming the authority’s no-politics policy at the highest level. 

Lauck cited the opinion in Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority throughout her opinion and did deny White Coat’s motion for declaratory relief, which would have nixed the policy entirely.

Bans on speech in public transit have been legal since the Supreme Court ruled in 1974’s Lehman v. City of Shaker Heights, which found such advertising a non-public forum because riders were forced to view it. Though seemingly an odd departure from most First Amendment cases, the high court said at the time that bus ads amounted to commercial speech, despite being on public property.

Allowing cities to ban certain kinds of speech in such a setting helps to minimize “chances of abuse, the appearance of favoritism, and the risk of imposing on a captive audience,” Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote. 

“While the Court sees the lack of guidance on what advertisers or officials alike may deem political, it is nonetheless bound to follow Lehman in finding that the Policy at bar is not facially unconstitutional as vague,” Lauck wrote. 

In a written statement, Greater Richmond Transit Company CEO Julie Timm said that the company was currently dealing with executive orders related to Covid-19 and protests related to the death of George Floyd and had not yet reviewed the ruling. 

White Coat Waste Project Vice President Justin Goodman said in a statement they were happy with the judge’s decision. He called the opinion “a major victory” despite the judge’s decision the policy is constitutional “on its face.”

“After a three year battle, the court’s decision to allow our ads criticizing the Richmond VA’s wasteful and cruel dog experiments to run on city buses is a major victory for free speech, government accountability, and animals,” Goodman said. “The Greater Richmond Transit Company tried to unlawfully censor us, but the court agreed taxpayers have a right to know that the VA is wasting their money to give puppies heart attacks, while veterans struggle to get adequate care.”

The order requires the company to run the ad at a fair market price.

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