The Humane Society of the United States filed a lawsuit recently against the Raleigh Transit Authority — a committee appointed by the City Council that oversees Capital Area Transit — for rejecting the group’s city bus advertisement showing pigs suffering in confinement on factory farms.
The Raleigh Transit Authority refused the ad for being “too negative” and instead suggested alternative designs that were less negative. Suggested alternatives included using a cartoon pig in a small bus seat “looking sad” or a slogan “Don’t Blog-Help the Hog.”
The lawsuit alleges that the Raleigh Transit Authority violated the Humane Society’s First Amendment free speech rights by rejecting the advertisement on the basis on of its “negative” message, artwork and text.
Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president for animal protection litigation at the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement, “The Transit Authority is violating the First Amendment by censoring animal welfare messages, and depriving the citizens of Raleigh of information pertinent to their food purchases.”
The proposed ads would wrap around Capital Area Transit buses and would include photographs of pigs confined to gestation crates. The text on the ads would read, “How would you like to spend the rest of your life in a space as small as a bus seat? It’s what Big Pork wants for pigs. But together we can change that.”
Anna West, public relations Manager at the Humane Society of the United States, said the goal of the advertisement is “to highlight the pork industry’s rampant abuse of breeding pigs. Millions of these animals are confined in tiny cages where they can’t even turn around for essentially their entire lives,” West said. “This practice is cruel and inhumane, and it must be ended.”
Both the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority – in Iowa, the nation’s largest pork-producing state – and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority accepted the advertisement and displayed it on their buses in 2012.
Raleigh City Attorney Thomas McCormick declined to comment on the matter because the lawsuit is pending.
This is not the first time that advertising on Triangle-area public buses has caused controversy. Last year, the town of Chapel Hill faced scrutiny when a Presbyterian church ran ads on Chapel Hill Transit buses calling for an end to military aid to Israel.
What Is An Appropriate Advertisement?
According to the City’s Bus Advertising Policy – found on the City of Raleigh’s website – the Raleigh Transit Authority uses the following standards for advertising when approving advertisements for Capital Area Transit Buses.
Advertising may not be displayed for the following reasons:
1. Is false, misleading or deceptive
2. Relates to an illegal activity
3. Advertises alcohol or tobacco products
4. Supports or opposes a candidate, issue or cause, or which advocates or opposes a religion, denomination, religious creed, tenet or belief
5. May be construed to reflect endorsement by Capital Area Transit, the Raleigh Transit Authority, or the City of Raleigh of a particular product, service, idea, etc.
The last reason is cited for the advertisement’s rejection.
The Humane Society offered to include a disclaimer making it clear that the advertisement does not imply the Raleigh Transit Authority’s endorsement, but the effort was rejected.
Freedom of Speech and Buses
According to Liz Woolery, a Roy H. Park Fellow in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication and researcher of legal and regulatory issues in mass communication, the best way to think about free speech and buses is to first consider the type of forum involved.
“I would argue that a bus system is likely a limited public forum, meaning that the government organization operating the bus system can impose some restrictions,” she said.
Woolery said the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear, however, that local governments cannot impose restrictions that decide what side of an issue is presented to the public, but she does not believe that is what happened in this case.
While the policy for advertising on Capital Area Transit buses is pretty straightforward, Woolery cited the policy’s vague language as a potential problem.
“The way the policy is written certainly leaves a lot of leeway for the CAT [Capital Area Transit] to determine what fits into these categories of advertisements they won’t accept. That could prove problematic before a court,” Woolery said. “A court might find that the policy is vague, in which case it could be struck down and a new, more articulate policy would need to be implemented.”
This probably won’t be the last of these cases and complaints, according to Woolery.
“I think organizations have more money to use on advertising now more than ever, and so we are likely to see more potentially controversial advertisements,” Woolery said. “And when a controversial advertisement pops up, inevitably someone is going to want to take it down, and when that happens these cases go to court.”