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May 02, 2018

SEPTA faces ACLU lawsuit after banning ads about housing discrimination

SEPTA Lawsuits
Stock_Carroll - SEPTA Bus on Market Street Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

A SEPTA bus at 2nd and Market streets in Old City.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing SEPTA after the transit agency refused to run ads about housing discrimination from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

CIR created the ads using findings from a report that delved into racial discrimination in the home mortgage market. The report garnered data from 61 different cities in the U.S., including Philadelphia. The center, which is nonpartisan, made ads displaying different graphics from the study.

SEPTA refused to post the ads on its buses and trains, as well as in it's stations, saying they conflicted with SEPTA’s policy banning all political advertising.

Now the ACLU is suing SEPTA for this policy, saying the ban on political advertising is unconstitutional and a violation of First Amendment rights.

“Debate on public issues is the cornerstone of participatory democracy,” said ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford in a statement.

“No government entity, including SEPTA, should single it out for censorship.”

SEPTA didn’t always ban political ads on its buses and railcars, however. The policy is relatively new, implemented in 2015 after an anti-Muslim campaign ran that many found especially hateful and offensive. The 2015 ad, which depicted Adolf Hitler with Palestinian Arab nationalist Haj Amin al-Husseini with the caption, “Islamic Jew Hatred: It’s in the Quran,” ran on 80 buses throughout the city. 

SEPTA initially fought in federal court to ban the ads but a ruling favoring free speech prevailed.

In order to escape similar incidents in the future, SEPTA moved to outlaw all political ads, prohibiting 22 different categories of advertisements.

The ACLU highlights the two categories that apply to the CIR ad: those that are “political in nature or contain political messages,” and “expressing or advocating an opinion, position or viewpoint on matters of public debate about economic, political, religious, historical or social issues.”

SEPTA defended its decision in a statement issued Wednesday, saying, “SEPTA’s decision is consistent with its advertising policy, which is constitutionally sound and necessary to ensure that our vehicles and stations do not become forums for political debate and distract from our core mission of providing safe and reliable public transportation in an environment that is welcoming to customers and employees.”