Citing Free Speech Concerns, ACLU Opposes Proposed Airport Advertising Restrictions

May 7, 2018 1:45 pm

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The ACLU of Rhode Island has expressed strong opposition to recently proposed regulations that would restrict the types of advertising allowed at T.F. Green Airport.

The contested regulations have been proposed by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC), the quasi-public agency responsible for operating, maintaining, and regulating all aspects of the state’s airports. The regulations would expand RIAC’s ability to ban most types of advertising, including – but not limited to – ads that promote or endorse “political positions,” feature certain religious symbols, or that even mention the Transportation Security Administration. Instead, the proposal emphasizes the agency’s interest in allowing only “family advertising” that contributes “to the establishment of the airports as prestigious locations for commercial advertising.”

The regulations are essentially a “commercial ads only” advertising policy, which seeks to insulate RIAC from controversy. But in its written testimony objecting to the proposal, the ACLU notes that “a commercial advertisement ‘promoting’ nuclear power or the fur coat industry can be just as controversial, if not more so, as an advertisement critical of a governmental policy.” The testimony adds that “an advertisement that makes travelers think should be as worthy of posting as one that makes them want to spend money.”

This is not the first time the ACLU has taken RIAC to task for restricting speech. More than fifteen years ago, the organization filed a lawsuit against RIAC on behalf of the RI Brotherhood of Correctional Officers when they were prohibited from running an ad critical of a proposed statewide “community corrections” program. In that instance, the ad was ultimately allowed to run. RIAC then narrowed the types of allowable advertising at the airport, of which this proposal is a continuation.

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said today the ACLU was researching the constitutionality of the proposal, noting that it engages in the type of viewpoint discrimination that is at odds with basic First Amendment principles. Brown added: “While we appreciate the airport’s interest in family-friendly advertising, a free speech-friendly policy would be even better.”

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