CITY HALL — Big Blue Bus officials say they will stay firm in their desire to keep nonprofit advertising off of the local bus system despite a Metro board decision to allow the ads.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board voted last week to change its 13-year-old policy preventing “non commercial” advertisements on its buses, a category that includes all nonprofits. The board created an exception that allows those organizations that partner with a government agency access to the space.
MTA walks a fine line with the new exception, which officials believe permits the association to accept some kinds of nonprofit advertising while denying others, something that could have left the agency open to First Amendment lawsuits in the past.
The Big Blue Bus began enforcing its own policy against nonprofit advertising last year, much to the chagrin of AIDS Project Los Angeles, which had taken out advertisements on the buses for six years to promote AIDS Walk Los Angeles, an event that helps support their advocacy for AIDS-related policies and legislation.
An extensive advertising campaign ensued in which AIDS Project Los Angeles lambasted City Hall for allowing McDonald’s restaurants to advertise its wares, but not groups like Santa Monica’s own environmental watchdog Heal the Bay.
Officials argued that if City Hall allowed the nonprofit to advertise, it would have to accept all other nonprofit advertising whether or not the content was offensive to people in Santa Monica.
The classic example came out of San Francisco, in which the bus system there was forced to carry ads from the American Freedom Defense Initiative that read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
“The city can certainly adopt a policy and effectuate a policy of allowing any nonprofit to advertise on the buses. That would be completely lawful,” City Attorney Marsha Moutrie told council members last September. “What the city can’t do lawfully is pick and choose.”
The new requirement of a governmental partner should prevent a San Francisco-esque squabble, said Warren Morse, deputy executive officer of communications for the MTA.
“The difficulty with having the non-commercial clause is that there are many worthwhile messages that were not permitted because of that provision,” Morse said.
AIDS Project Los Angeles has been a driving force behind the change, picking up outreach at the end of last year.
Law firm Latham & Watkins took on the case pro bono and laid out an argument that its proposed policy would let the MTA sell advertising space to any willing to purchase it while prohibiting certain advertising that “could be disruptive to the transit system or negatively impact the price paid for advertising space,” according to a letter to the MTA.
The board ultimately chose a more conservative route, but one that AIDS Walk Los Angeles could live with since the nonprofit has backing from both Los Angeles and West Hollywood, said Craig Thompson, executive director of the organization.
He hopes that the Big Blue Bus will also relent, although the group focused first on the larger transit system.
“When we had these discussions last fall, it was too late for Big Blue Bus advertising,” Thompson said. “We put our advocacy focus on what for us was a longer endgame, which was the MTA.”
Things don’t look good, however.
“There is not a consideration at the (Big Blue Bus) to change the city’s advertising policy,” said Suja Lowenthal, government and community relations manager with the bus system.
Last year, former Mayor Richard Bloom tried to push a compromise that would have allowed advertising to take place. Although current Mayor Pam O’Connor, who sits on the MTA board, voted for the change in policy last week, she doesn’t see a need to fix what isn’t broken in Santa Monica.
“I prefer our solution,” O’Connor said.