CHICAGO (CN) — Chicago’s refusal to run an ad in Midway Airport that “respectfully” shows Southwest shareholders earned $3 billion while pilots received no raises violates the First Amendment, the Southwest pilots’ union claims.
Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association (SWAPA), the airlines’ pilot union, says the City of Chicago violated its First Amendment rights by blocking its proposed advertisement from running in Midway International Airport ahead of the May 18, 2016, meeting of Southwest shareholders in Chicago.
The advertisement states, “The Pilots of SWAPA welcome our shareholders to Chicago,” and shows a pilot holding a sign showing that shareholders returns were $3.1 billion, while pilots received $0 in raises.
“As is apparent, the ad thus respectfully welcomed Southwest’s shareholders to Chicago for their annual meeting, but suggested that, given Southwest’s over $3.1 billion in shareholder returns, the airline’s pilots should be given a raise,” according to a lawsuit SWAPA filed Tuesday in Northern Illinois Federal Court.
Chicago’s Midway Airport is a regional hub for Southwest Airlines.
The Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) rejected the ad, allegedly claiming it is “disparaging” of Southwest, a characterization the pilots’ union vigorously denies.
“In rejecting the ad, the CDA admitted that one of the key reasons that it would not allow such speech was that Southwest might find it objectionable,” the complaint states. “That sort of viewpoint discrimination based on the content of SWAPA’s speech is not a valid reason to restrict speech in any forum, much less a designated public forum like the ad-space at issue here, which has historically been open to wide-ranging speech on a number of issues including public issue and political speech.” (Emphasis in original.)
The pilots’ union claims it is unconstitutional for the CDA, a department of the City of Chicago, to reject the ad because it expresses the political opinion of a trade union.
“Southwest previously let SWAPA itself run advertisements when it painted Southwest Airlines in a positive light,” the lawsuit states. “The restrictions regarding ‘political,’ ‘public issue,’ and ‘disparaging’ advertisements in the CDA’s written guidelines are unconstitutionally vague, particularly in light of its actual practice.”
The union is represented by Stephen A. Yokich with Dowd, Bloch, Bennett, Cervone, Auerbach & Yokich in Chicago, and also by James M. Wagstaffe with Kerr & Wagstaffe in San Francisco.
CDA Deputy Commissioner of Communications Owen Kilmer said in an emailed statement that the agency properly rejected the pilots’ proposed ad.
“Ads that are political, concern a public issue or are disparaging, are not permitted,” Kilmer said.
The CDA told the union that it may apply for a permit to allow members to distribute literature or demonstrate in designated areas, according to Kilmer, but the union declined to apply.
Southwest spokesperson Chris Mainz said the company has no comment on the lawsuit.
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