Judge Hears Closings on Transit Authority’s Politics Ban

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Railing against what he called “bipolar viewpoint discrimination,” a lawyer pushed a federal judge at closing arguments Thursday to find that the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority capriciously applies its political-advertising ban.

The Center for Investigative Reporting ran this cartoon to promote the findings of a year-long study that documented racial disparities in the mortgage market. Earlier this year, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority rejected a proposed advertising campaign derived from the same study.

“SEPTA has used the challenge provisions to sift out and block controversial provisions and controversial speech,” said John Stapleton, an attorney with the firm Hangley Aronchick who represents the Center for Investigative Reporting. “It cannot reject our client’s advertisement just because it deals with that controversial topic.”

Along with the American Civil Liberties Union, Stapleton filed suit in May over an ad campaign that the center wanted to run in promotion of its year-long study that uncovered racial disparities in the mortgage market.

Though SEPTA invoked its politics ban in denying the ad, Stapleton noted in his closing statement Thursday that the agency has previously run ads that could be seen as political, such as those pushing sperm donation and Planned Parenthood, as well one that touted a bank’s lending practices.

“The government has allowed one viewpoint about a topic and denied another viewpoint,” said Stapleton said.

More overtly political, Stapleton continued, are the ads SEPTA has accepted from the city of Philadelphia and healthcare.gov.

The lawyer appeared ruffled when U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson pressed him on what relief he seeks: “Do you want SEPTA to run that ad?”

After a few seconds of silence, Stapleton answered yes, adding that he wants an injunction for SEPTA to run his client’s ad, as well as an order from the federal judge declaring SEPTA’s advertisement policy unconstitutional.

Baylson scheduled closings for today after hearing testimony a month earlier. During the trial SEPTA’s general counsel Geno Benedetti testified that the ad on mortgage biases violated its policy because it was “political in nature” and an opinion “on a matter of public debate.”

Maryellen Madden, an attorney for SEPTA with Montgomery McCracken, said at closing arguments Thursday that the challenger’s case is was inconsistent.

“We’re being called sensors by the plaintiff in this case,” she said. “They say on the one hand we’re censors, and on the other hand, we don’t censor enough stuff on the government forum.”

Madden then brought up a picture on the court monitors of the accepted bank ad that Stapleton had mentioned.

In big letters, beside a smiling couple, the ad from DMB Community Bank told commuters: “We’ve got the home loan you need.”

Madden denied that this ad was political or a matter of opinion.

“The ad does not say ‘we don’t discriminate,’” she said. “It says they are an equal opportunity lender.”

Judge Baylson clarified that it was his understanding that SEPTA’s policy was not to run any ads  that express viewpoints on “economic, political, religious, historical or social issues,” theorizing that the policy could be seen as “issue restrictive.”

He said the parties can expect a ruling by the end of November.

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