PHOENIX – Today, the Goldwater Institute filed a legal challenge to the removal of a business advertisement from 50 Phoenix bus shelters in October 2010, claiming the city’s rules are so vague that they allow city officials to violate business owners’ right to free speech.
The Phoenix Public Transit Department says posters for a website operated by TrainMeAz did not comply with city standards for advertising at bus shelters. But city officials cannot explain how the TrainMeAZ ads are substantially different than posters that appear on bus stops throughout the city for other businesses including jewelry stores, fast-food restaurants, and weekend gun shows, said Clint Bolick, the Goldwater Institute’s litigation director.
“Phoenix’s officials can oversee the content of advertising on city property to prevent obscene material or truly inappropriate messages,” Mr. Bolick said. “But the city cannot dismiss ads based on a bureaucratic whim. The free speech protections of the First Amendment and the Arizona Constitution require the city to enforce clear and objective standards that treat advertisers in a fair and equal manner.”
The Arizona Constitution protects free expression to a greater degree than the federal Constitution – it gives every person in the state the right to “freely speak, write and publish.” But the City’s ordinance permits only commercial speech at bus stops, prohibiting all other types of advertisements. This doesn’t comply with the state’s broad speech protections. In Arizona, the government may not favor one type of speech over other types.
The TrainMeAz website was created in 2010 to connect self-defense and marksmanship trainers with potential customers. To grow the new business, the website launched a promotion campaign that included roadside billboards. It also contracted for poster locations with CBS Outdoors, a private company hired by the Phoenix transit department to manage advertising at city bus stops. A week after the bus stop ads were in place, Phoenix transit officials ordered their removal. Negotiations to restore the ads failed, as the city claimed the posters did not propose “a commercial transaction.”
“If this is left unchallenged, there’s a serious risk that bureaucrats will apply their own personal views to determine which ads are accepted or rejected, violating the First Amendment’s protection from arbitrary government censorship,” Mr. Bolick said. “A vegetarian transit official could reject ads featuring fast-food burgers, or a conservative official could reject ads for businesses associated with liberal causes.”
The Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation represents TrainMeAz LLC and company manager Alan Korwin in this legal case. The Goldwater Institute has requested the courts strike down the city ordinance on bus shelter advertising, so that a new version can be adopted that provides clear standards for the transit department to follow. As an alternative, the courts also could determine that TrainMeAz’s ads should not have been removed.
Read more about this and other Goldwater Institute cases to protect individual rights and uphold the Constitution here. The Goldwater Institute is an independent government watchdog supported by people who are committed to expanding free enterprise and liberty.