For the last five years, the Big Blue Buses have carried the group's ads. But the city is halting the practice because it bans non-commercial advertising.
AIDS Walk Los Angeles is protesting the refusal of the Santa Monica bus system to accept paid notices promoting the organization's 2012 fundraiser. The flap is the most recent nationally involving free speech rights and bus ads.
For the last five years, AIDS Walk Los Angeles has promoted its annual event with ads plastered on the city's municipal Big Blue Buses. Last year, however, the Santa Monica city attorney's office ordered Big Blue Bus officials to stop accepting such ads because they violated the transit system's long-standing policy banning non-commercial advertising, according to Joe Stitcher, the bus system's chief administrative officer.
The prohibition is intended to shield the bus system from becoming a "public forum," a legal designation that would mean that city officials would have little control over the content of bus ads. A "public forum" is open to all expression permitted under the 1st Amendment.
Stitcher said that, although the ban had long been on the books, officials had mistakenly violated it when in the past they allowed ads for AIDS Walk Los Angeles, and for other nonprofits. In December, Stitcher said, bus officials met with AIDS Walk personnel to explain that authorities had erred and would no longer run the ads.
"We had a lengthy conversation .... apologizing for the fact we could no longer do this," he said.
Craig Miller, a 29-year Santa Monica resident who founded and produces AIDS Walk Los Angeles, said he then sought for six months to meet with the city manager and bus officials to get them to change their minds. In July, he said, city officials told him the prohibition would remain. Miller next met with Mayor Richard Bloom, who agreed to put a discussion of the topic on the Tuesday City Council agenda.
Although Bloom said the topic warranted discussion on free speech grounds, he said he was concerned that buses could become a forum for "counterproductive speech." He cited the case of a pro-Israel group's paid advertisement that ran last month on 10 San Francisco municipal buses, prompting intense public debate. The ad, placed by the group American Freedom Defense Initiative, read: "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad."
The New York-based group, headed by Pamela Geller, had earlier sued the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York after it rejected the ad for city buses on grounds that it contained demeaning language. A federal judge in Manhattan ruled that the MTA had violated the group's 1st Amendment rights.
While acknowledging that the ad qualified as free expression, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency eventually condemned it and countered with a bus card posted with the ad saying that its policy prohibited discrimination and that it condemned statements describing any group as savages. The agency donated all proceeds from the ad to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and announced that it would review its advertising guidelines.
AIDS Walk ads were accepted in past years by the ad vendor for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority despite a similar ban. Metro's board is slated to review the policy.
"This is a very broad issue," said Miller, the AIDS Walk organizer. "Does it make sense to anybody that Coca-Cola should be able to advertise its extra-large sodas, but the Juvenile Diabetes Assn. shouldn't be able to put out ads criticizing those?"
Miller described the American Freedom Defense Initiative ad as "the bogeyman of the issue." He said Santa Monica and other municipalities should draw "reasonable and categorical lines" to prevent disparaging ads. "The trick is to make policy with a ballpoint pen, not with a crayon," he said.
AIDS Walk Los Angeles, begun in 1985, has raised more than $72 million for HIV programs and services in Los Angeles County. In 2011, 30,000 volunteers participated.