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ACLU files lawsuit against AATA over rejection of ad

By Haley Glatthorn, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 28, 2011

The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit yesterday against the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority concerning the company’s refusal to sell advertising space to an Ann Arbor activist who promotes boycotting Israel.

Following AATA’s refusal of activist Blaine Coleman’s ad, which was intended to read “Boycott Israel, Boycott Apartheid,” the ACLU lawsuit claims AATA’s advertising policy, which requires all ads to be “in good taste” and bans advertising that is “likely to hold up to scorn or ridicule a person or group of persons,” is in violation of the First Amendment due to its “vague” nature. The ACLU is calling for a judge to rule the policy unconstitutional.

The lawsuit also states that Coleman’s ad should not be discriminated against because of its controversial nature. Dan Korobkin, staff attorney of the Michigan chapter of the ACLU, wrote in a press release yesterday that the case is pursuing the protection of free speech.

“In a free and democratic society, we cannot allow the government to suppress political speech, even if it is controversial, makes some uncomfortable, or stirs our emotions,” Korobkin wrote. “The solution is never to censor unpopular speech, but to allow others the same opportunity to speak.”

In the press release, AATA maintains that Coleman’s proposed advertisement breaches the company’s advertising policy. AATA officials could not be reached for comment about the lawsuit as of last night.

According to the ACLU press release, AATA has previously run advertisements regarding race, religion and politics with messages such as, “In Washtenaw County, black babies are three times more likely to die than white babies.” Korobkin wrote that AATA’s acceptance of the advertisements suggests that Coleman’s ad should also be deemed appropriate.

“Once a public agency decides to allow some people to speak, it can’t pick and choose between the speech that it likes and the speech that it doesn’t,” Korobkin wrote. “By allowing some messages, yet censoring Mr. Coleman, AATA is doing exactly what the First Amendment is designed to prohibit.”

In the release, Coleman wrote that he chose to create the advertisement to “empower” Palestinians and increase awareness regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“For generations, boycotts have been an effective tool to raise awareness and effect change, and I personally believe that a call to boycott Israel is the best way to empower the Palestinian people,” Coleman wrote. “However, you can't have a boycott if the government won't allow you to speak like everyone else.”

AATA CEO Michael Ford wrote in an e-mail interview last week that the ACLU had acknowledged that Coleman’s advertisement may be offensive.

“The standard is viewpoint-neutral, and is designed to achieve the judicially-approved objective of ensuring ‘a certain minimum level of discourse that is applicable to everyone,' " Ford wrote.

The ACLU initially contacted AATA in August regarding its advertising policy, and the press release states that the company did not respond positively to attempts to resolve the issue without litigation.


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