Transit Authority’s Politics Ban Puts General Counsel in Hot Seat

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Defending a no-politics policy that took effect after an openly anti-Muslim group beat it in court, a lawyer for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority testified Monday that the agency was justified in blocking advertising about racial disparities in mortgage lending.

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 adopted the ban on politics in 2015 after its prior policy against “public issue advertising” invited a successful lawsuit by a group that calls itself the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

In the 2015 case, a federal judge found that SEPTA’s old policy was applied unevenly and that it would have to run the ads featuring a photograph of Adolf Hitler speaking with a leader of Palestine in the 1940s. “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s in the Quran,” the advertisement said.

This year, SEPTA is back in court to fight of First Amendment claims from a nonprofit news organization that uncovered racial disparities in the mortgage market after a year-long study.

The Center for Investigative Reporting initially promoted its findings in a 10-panel comic strip, and it filed suit in May when SEPTA refused to let it run an infographic derived from that series on Philadelphia-area buses.

U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson held a trial on the challenge Monday after refusing just a week earlier to grant an injunction.

At these proceedings, the court heard testimony from Gino Benedetti, the general counsel at SEPTA whose team is signs off on the advertising proposals that garner more than $16 million a year in revenue for the agency.

Benedetti explained that the team did additional research after the center submitted its proposed ad, and that the message the center was pushing conflicted with one paper put out by the American Bankers Association, a New York Times editorial, and numerous lawsuits and settlements about discriminatory lending practices.

Because the advertisement was found to express an opinion on matters of public debate about economic, political and social issues, Benedetti said the agency was justified in refusing it.

Benedetti discussed other advertisements that his team has rejected over the years for being too political. One called for the “freeing” of Meek Mill, a Philadelphia rapper whose incarceration this year inspired widespread backlash against disparities in the criminal-justice system.

Other materials that SEPTA rejected included Fusion Advertising based on nudity, marijuana joints and a man holding his crotch, Benedetti said.

“We look at the entire ad,” Benedetti testified. “We also look at … the subject matter of that ad being debated in our society at large.”

Benedetti also noted that SEPTA always allows advertisers to revise and resubmit any denied advertisement to meet its standards.

The Center for Investigative Reporting is represented in the challenge by Molly Tack-Hooper with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Accusing that SEPTA of unconstitutional censorship, Tack-Hooper noted Monday that the agency has showed inconsistency by previously accepting ads for government services like the Safe Sleep campaign by the Philadelphia Department of Health, as well as the Anti-Human Trafficking campaign by the Department of Homeland Security.

SEPTA is represented by Maryellen Madden with the firm Montgomery McCracken. The agency did not call any witnesses to testify Monday, and Judge Baylson set closing arguments for the trial to occur on Nov. 1.

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