Massachusetts Transit Agency Violated Free Speech Rights by Rejecting Marijuana Policy Reform Ads, Federal Court Rules

December 9, 2004 12:00 am

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ACLU Criticizes Court’s Decision to Ban Christian Church Ads

BOSTON — Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts declared a First Amendment victory today in a federal appeals court ruling that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority violated free speech rights by refusing to display subway advertisements encouraging public discussion about marijuana policies and laws. However, the ACLU criticized a separate ruling that upheld the transit agency’s decision to reject ads submitted by a Christian church group.

“Reform of the nation’s marijuana laws is an important public issue,” said attorney Harvey Schwartz, who argued the case for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The court issued a strong affirmation of the public’s right to hear all sides of this debate, free from interference by a government agency. That is what the First Amendment is all about. The MBTA has now been told it can’t act as a censor on this topic.”

In a ruling released yesterday, the court held that subway officials’ refusal to display three ads submitted by the nonprofit group, Change the Climate, violated the U.S. Constitution because the decision was based on their personal disapproval of the views expressed in the ads. While the transportation authority regularly displays both liquor ads and government-sponsored ads promoting anti-drug messages, it refused to post ads urging discussion of the nation’s marijuana laws.

“This is a victory for citizens who want an open and free debate about existing marijuana laws,” said Joe White, a parent and businessman who founded Change the Climate. “Our current laws are a failure. They have wasted taxpayer dollars and police and prison resources, and are not telling the truth to our children about marijuana. I hope our ads can be displayed soon and will spark that discussion.”

Change the Climate’s ads have already appeared in buses, bus shelters, and subway stations in Washington, D.C., and on billboards in Boston, California and Nevada.

“The court ruled that the MBTA had acted unreasonably in rejecting the ads,” said ACLU staff attorney Sarah Wunsch. “The court found that the MBTA displayed liquor ads that were more appealing to juveniles than Change the Climate’s ads and specifically rejected the MBTA’s claim that the marijuana policy ads advocate illegal drug use.”

In a separate case, which was combined with the marijuana policy reform ads lawsuit for the appeal, the court ruled that the transportation authority had the right to reject ads submitted by the Church of the Good News. The ads criticized the secularization of Christmas and promoted Christianity as the “one true religion.” The ACLU of Massachusetts filed the lawsuit in 2002 charging that the transportation authority violated the religious liberty and free speech rights of the church. For more information on this case, go to: /node/4398.

The court’s ruling is online at: /node/34995

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