A humdinger of a First Amendment battle is gearing up in federal court, all because the Humane Society of the United States wanted to buy ad space on some buses.
Care2 has obtained a copy of the HSUS complaint. It tells an interesting story.
HSUS began talking with the RTA in September 2012 about buying vinyl bus wrap advertisements to be displayed on the exterior of city buses for a six-month period. The city touts this type of ad as an effective way of reaching 14,000 riders daily and tens of thousands of members of the public.
As described in HSUS’s complaint, the e-mails back and forth with a city representative made the ad purchase sound like a done deal. That is, until HSUS forwarded the proposed art work.
The ad shows, on each side of the bus, photographs of pigs confined to gestation crates. They are not particularly graphic images, though they are rather heartbreaking. The ad’s text reads: “How would you like to spend the rest of your life in a space as small as a bus seat? It’s what Big Pork wants for pigs. But together we can change that.”
Appearing on the rear of the bus is an image of a pig lying on her side in a gestation crate. The text here reads: “She can’t even turn around. Together we can change that.”
Here’s how a bus wrapped with this ad looks:
Within a couple of hours of receiving this proposed artwork, the deal was off. The Transit Authority Marketing Committee rejected the ad. The transit marketing specialist with whom HSUS was working told them by e-mail that the “image of the pigs is too negative for us to place on the buses.”
He indicated that this advertisement was given a thumbs down by the committee because it ran afoul of the city’s prohibition on ads that “may be construed to reflect endorsement by Capital Area Transit, the Raleigh Transit Authority, or the City of Raleigh of a particular product, service, idea, etc.”
The committee, on the other hand, was willing to approve an ad “if the images were less graphic or the ad was less negative.” They even offered some suggestions — perhaps a “cartoon pig in a small bus seat looking sad” would work. Ultimately, though, they said that the city would not approve the HSUS ad as submitted.
A cartoon pig in a bus seat. Now that’s effective animal advocacy, isn’t it?
The RTA rejection was unexpected. HSUS ran this very wrap advertisement in 2012 on buses in Washington, DC and Des Moines, Iowa, quite successfully. Iowa, by the way, is the number one pork producing state in the country, but the ads appeared on Des Moines buses without opposition.
According to the Raleigh News and Observer, a spokesman for the Des Moines transit system said the ads there prompted “few, if any” complaints. The HSUS lawsuit notes that the ads continue to run on Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) buses even today, subject to monthly renewal.
The City of Raleigh’s bus advertising policy is available online. It says:
The Raleigh Transit Authority has sole and unquestioned authority to determine what constitutes appropriate advertisements. The following standards for advertising have been adopted and such advertising may not be displayed:
1. Is false, misleading or deceptive;
2. Relates to an illegal activity;
3. Advertises alcohol or tobacco products;
4. Supports or opposes a candidate, issue or cause, or which advocates or opposes religion, denomination, religious creed, tenet or belief;
5. May be construed to reflect endorsement by Capital Area Transit, the Raleigh Transit Authority, or the City of Raleigh of a particular product, service, idea, etc.
According to the Transit Authority Marketing Committee, this HSUS ad violated standard number 5. It’s apparently problematic for the City of Raleigh, located in the second-largest pork producing state, to risk appearing to endorse the increasingly popular view that gestation crates are cruel.
No problem, said HSUS. According to its complaint, after receiving the initial rejection, HSUS offered to include the following disclaimer everywhere the HSUS logo appeared on the bus, similar to the one it placed on the ads in the District of Columbia:
This is a paid advertisement sponsored by The Humane Society. The advertising space is a designated public forum and does not imply WMATA’s endorsement of any views expressed.
Interestingly, while this adjustment would seem to clear up the issue of endorsement quite handily, as it had for WMATA, the response by the RTA was still a big fat “No.”
The transit marketing specialist responded to HSUS by e-mail, saying, “I submitted your proposal to our Transit Authority and they still rejected the ad even with the addition of the wording.”
Faced with no rational reason for such a rejection, HSUS sued. In its complaint, the group calls the RTA’s refusal to accept their ad a “content- and viewpoint-based restriction on Plaintiff’s free expression in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”
“The transit authority’s policy is so vague that it basically boils down to the whim of the agency,” Peter Brandt, HSUS’s senior attorney for farm animals, told the Raleigh News and Observer. “That’s legally unacceptable. You can have standards for excluding advertisements, but the standards have to be specific.”
The RTA has not yet filed its answer to HSUS’s complaint and is not making any public statements now that litigation is pending. It will be interesting to see how they respond — and whether they include any sad cartoon pigs when they do.
Photo credit: Thinkstock