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August 24, 2016

Court: Philly's ban on airport advocacy ads violates First Amendment

A federal court has ruled Philadelphia's ban on billboard advertisements that promote political and social issues is unconstitutional.

In a split decision Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed a District Court ruling that the city's barring of such ads violated the First Amendment.

The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by the NAACP in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania in 2011 after the city refused to accept an ad that read: "Welcome to America, home to 5% of the world's people and 25% of the world's prisoners."

At the time of the refusal of the ad, Philadelphia International Airport did not have a written policy on issue or advocacy advertisements. After the city officially laid out a policy banning them, the NAACP submitted an amended lawsuit.

The city had argued that such ads could harm its ability to maximize revenue and avoid controversy. In his majority ruling, Judge Thomas Ambro cited a deposition of James Tyrrell, the airport’s deputy director of aviation and property management/business development, to refute that claim.

Ambro wrote that Tyrrell was unable to offer "any conclusive explanation" for the ban. He also wrote that while the city said revenue and avoiding controversies were the reasons for the ban, it admitted that the "actual intent might have been to suppress viewpoints that cast Philadelphia or the region in a negative light."

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas Hardiman wrote that the ban was a reasonable way for the airport to promote its mission of maintaining a congenial and non-controversial atmosphere.

Lauren Hitt, spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, said the city's law department was still reviewing the case Wednesday morning. Former Mayor Michael Nutter was in office in October when the case was argued.