CITY HALL — Three Santa Monica residents filed suit against City Hall Monday contesting a long-standing ban against non-commercial advertising on Santa Monica’s Big Blue buses that has recently ensnared the nonprofit AIDS Walk Los Angeles.

The ban, which has been in place since 2001, was loosely enforced for a decade until city officials reviewed their policy, which prohibited advertising that did not promote the sale of a good or a service.

That included an event like AIDS Walk Los Angeles despite the fact that the buses have carried those advertisements for the past six years. AIDS walk is a 10-kilometer walking event that raises money for AIDS Project Los Angeles to be spent on research, resources and education related to the disease.

The organization was informed in December that it would no longer be able to put the ads on the buses, a form of outreach its organizers believe is central to its overall campaign.

Craig Miller, the founder of the event, sued along with local businesswoman Lisa Brisse and recent Santa Monica High School graduate Paloma Bennett to get the advertisements back on the buses in the run-up to the Oct. 14 event and to secure the right to run future “public service” advertising encouraging people to get tested for HIV and AIDS.

“Every day makes a difference,” Miller said. “This community organizer will give up on running 2012 AIDS Walk L.A. ads on Oct. 14, but not a day before.”

Miller and the other plaintiffs contend that City Hall’s characterization of the ads as “non-commercial” skips over the very real exchange of money that occurs both as organizers gather donations for the event and as large corporate sponsors like car manufacturer Toyota or movie giant Paramount Pictures buy sponsorships.

He likens it to advertising on television shows, which also fetch a high price for spots based on the number of eyes an advertiser or sponsor can reach, but involves no direct commerce.

“Our sponsors give us money for two reasons — to promote the cause and to sell their products to our audience. The larger our crowd, the more we are able to sell our sponsorships for. It’s directly analogous to a television station,” Miller said.

If that argument doesn’t hold up, Miller and his attorneys will argue that the whole notion of disallowing non-commercial speech while inviting in commercial entities is unconstitutional.

A better policy to Miller’s way of thinking would be setting up defined regulations that would prevent unwanted or offensive speech from decorating the sides of Santa Monica’s buses while at the same time allowing organizations like AIDS Walk Los Angeles to promote their events.

City officials aren’t interested in drawing those lines, said Deputy City Attorney Anthony Serritella.

“The city of Santa Monica policy distinguishes between commercial and non-commercial speech. They don’t want to be in the position to say some forms of non-commercial advertisements are appropriate and some are not. It’s the best way to run afoul of the First Amendment,” Serritella said.

Cities cannot pick and choose between organizations based on content, and even regulations that prohibit some content across the board can invite lawsuits.

At the Sept. 11 City Council meeting, officials noted that the city of San Francisco had found itself in a bind when a nonprofit organization ran an ad on the sides of its buses that read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

San Francisco is now exploring ways to prohibit noncommercial speech in an attempt to prevent future inflammatory ads like that one from being displayed on city buses, City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said at the meeting.

Focusing on avoiding litigation to the exclusion of all other factors seems like a losing proposition, Miller said.

“The city attorney seems to be coming from a standpoint that the number one priority, more than free speech, more than reflecting the values of our people in our city’s policy, more important than any of that is ‘Don’t get sued,’” Miller said. “Well there’s a great irony to her position isn’t there? … We have an empirical fact in front of us now, the city is being sued.”

The existing policy does include room for nonprofits, and even some advertisements that don’t appear to be explicitly commercial.

Groups like the local public radio station KCRW are still able to run advertisements on Big Blue buses because they have a cooperative agreement with City Hall that allows them to do so.

Not only does KCRW broadcast City Council meetings live, it’s also connected with the Santa Monica City College District, which makes it part of another government agency, Serritella said.

 

ashley@smdp.com