PHILADELPHIA (CN) - An ever-shifting policy on "controversial" billboards at the Philadelphia airport led one Third Circuit judge to show his "Harry Potter" fan stripes.
"It's like Hogwarts," Chief Judge Theodore McKee said. "These are magic billboards."
The hearing stems from policies that the city-run Philadelphia International Airport adopted after a dispute in 2011 with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People."
Though the airport ran the NAACP's ad that year - one that said, "Welcome to America, home to 5% of the world's people & 25% of the world's prisoners," the airport adopted guidelines to limit such ads in the future.
Philadelphia found an unfriendly panel in the Third Circuit today as it appeals a federal judge's finding that its guidelines are unconstitutional.
"These billboards are changelings," Judge Thomas Hardiman said. "One day we apply one legal standard and another day, another hour we apply another legal standard
Before jumping of Platform 9 ¾ for his allusion to Hogwarts, Judge McKee pointed out that the airport regularly places noncommercial advertisements, including one publicizing Philadelphia Beer Week, organized by the city.
Gottlieb said that all such ads are segregated among clear designated city-specific billboards.
But the judges largely zeroed in on the city's claim that reducing issue advertisements would "maximize revenue" for both the airport and the city.
Gottlieb argued that commercial advertising begets more commercial advertising, but Judge Hardiman asked why nonprofits couldn't do the same.
"What if the Walmarts and the Targets of the world don't care to advertise on airport billboards, but the NAACP and the NRA and every other acronym group really likes to post on billboards," he asked. "Wouldn't you maximize revenue by opening up to all of them?"
In fact, the judges seemed to explicitly acknowledge an absurdity that Fred Magaziner, representing the NAACP, argued was inherent in the city's defense of its policy.
"The city can't say the avoidance of controversy is appropriate in this context, in an airport where there are 126 televisions," Magaziner said. "If you were in the airport last week, Your Honor, you would have seen TV broadcasts on 126 TVs of gunmen going on a rampage in Oregon, of people being beheaded in Syria, of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. They have not created a Disneyland situation there where they say, 'Oh, any controversy is upsetting.'
"They are selling liquor - they ban liquor ads and have a duty-free liquor store," Magaziner continued to a unusually hearty laugh from the judges.
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