Following Legal Challenge from ACLU and Drug Policy Reform Groups, Federal Court Strikes Down Law Censoring Marijuana Policy Reform Ads

June 3, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON–In a stinging rebuke, a federal judge today struck down a law prohibiting the display of marijuana policy reform ads in public transit systems, saying that the government’s attempt to censor ads was “illegitimate and constitutionally impermissible.” The judge also issued a permanent injunction prohibiting its enforcement.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for free speech. The court ruled that Americans have a right to hear the message that marijuana prohibition has been a cruel and expensive failure,” said Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project. “The constitution protects these messages from the type of viewpoint-based discrimination attempted by the federal government.”

At issue in ACLU et al., v. Norman Y. Mineta (civil action no. 04-0262) is the constitutionality of Section 177 of this year’s federal spending bill regarding the protection of the First Amendment. The law, known as the “Istook Amendment,” cuts off more than $3 billion in federal funding from local transit authorities nationwide that accept advertisements critical of current marijuana laws. The coalition of national drug policy reform groups filed the lawsuit on February 18, 2004 after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority rejected an advertisement they submitted that criticized marijuana laws.

Judge Paul L. Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled the “Istook Amendment” unconstitutional and stated in his ruling that “there is a clear public interest in preventing the chilling of speech on the basis of viewpoint” and that “the government articulated no legitimate state interest in the suppression of this particular speech other than the fact that it disapproves of the message, an illegitimate and constitutionally impermissible reason.”

“Thankfully the federal court came down on the side of free speech in its ruling against the Istook Amendment,” said Joe White, executive director of Change the Climate. “The American people can now hear both sides of the debate.”

The immediate impact of the court’s ruling is that the rejected ad may now run on the D.C. Metro. The advertisement in question shows a group of ordinary people standing behind prison bars under the headline, “Marijuana Laws Waste Billions of Taxpayer Dollars to Lock Up Non-Violent Americans.”

“This victory is just one of many recent legal victories for the drug policy reform movement,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “From overturning federal infringements on free speech to declaring DEA raids on medical marijuana patients unconstitutional, courts are realizing that the war on drugs is really a war on the Bill of Rights and they’re striking down the excesses of the drug war left and right.”

Steve Fox, the director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project added, “The federal government has wasted enough taxpayer dollars trying to prevent an honest debate about marijuana policy. Rather than wasting more money trying to stifle debate, they should look at the growing evidence that current policies have failed.”

The same groups who sought to run the advertisement filed the lawsuit. The plaintiffs were represented by the Washington D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter LLP, which also presented oral arguments on their behalf in federal court in April, 2004. The lawsuit names Norman Y. Mineta, U.S. Secretary of Transportation as the defendant.

“Judge Friedman understood that this was not a case about drug policy but a case about free speech,” said Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area. “Reasonable people can disagree about drug policy, but Congress cannot constitutionally censor one side of that discussion.”

Today’s ruling, the rejected advertisement, other legal documents, a list of transit authorities affected by the law and background information is online at:,,, and

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