SPT: Bus Ads -- Bus advertisement quandry

10 Oct 2001

PSTA faces fight over ads

A group with an aim of "preventing homosexuality in our youth" wants a sign on bus shelters. PSTA's ad agency has rejected it.

St. Petersburg Times,
October 10, 2001


Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian ministry, is wrestling with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority about an advertisement the religious group wants to display on bus shelters.

Last year Eller Media, the advertising agency handling PSTA accounts, refused a Focus advertisement promoting a conference in Brandon. The ad read: "Love won out. Addressing, understanding and preventing homosexuality in our youth." The advertisement didn't appear at shelters in Pinellas, and Focus filed a lawsuit in federal court against PSTA, which is pending.

This year a similar advertisement was rejected by Eller Media, now owned by Clear Channel Communications. On Tuesday, Focus filed a motion seeking an injunction against PSTA, claiming that the group's posters were unconstitutionally censored.

"The First Amendment guarantees free speech," said Mathew Staver, an Orlando attorney representing Focus. "The government cannot selectively choose those messages it allows and those it censors."

An agreement between PSTA and Clear Channel, which handles advertising at the bus shelters, gives Clear Channel the right to build and maintain PSTA shelters as well as accept and decline advertisements.

The agreement says that "no advertising promoting the sale of alcohol, tobacco, or (a) political or socially embarrassing subject" will be allowed. Advertising also will not be accepted if it is false, misleading, defamatory or obscene.

Attorneys for PSTA and Clear Channel say the advertisement would embarrass and offend gays and is inappropriate.

But Staver said that the group's First Amendment rights are being violated and that the guidelines are too vague, leaving the door open for discretion.

"What's socially embarrassing to one person is not socially embarrassing to another," said Staver, president and general counsel for Liberty Counsel, a civil liberties education and legal defense organization in Orlando.

But PSTA and Clear Channel say that's not the point. They say that the shelters are owned by Clear Channel, are private and that Clear Channel often makes decisions about advertisements without consulting PSTA.

"Even if PSTA thought they were wrong, which we don't think they are, we don't have the right under the agreement to require (them) to run the Focus on the Family advertisement or any other advertisement other than our own," said Alan Zimmet, an attorney who represents PSTA.

This isn't the first time PSTA has had to defend itself against those seeking to influence public opinion.

Two years ago, the transit agency decided its buses would not be a "public forum" for advertisers. The decision came after PSTA was entangled in match between the Church of Scientology and a group of church critics who purchased advertisements that read: "Think for Yourself. Quit Scientology" and "Why does Scientology lie to its members?" PSTA's board voted unanimously to only allow bus ads that propose "a commercial transaction" -- a decision that silenced public service messages on buses. That policy, however, does not address bus shelters.


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