Non-profit organizations are now allowed to purchase advertising on the Big Blue Bus following a decision at the Feb. 9 council meeting.

Prior to Tuesday night, all advertising on buses was limited to commercial operations and about 90 percent was purchased by movies, television shows or health care services. The program generates about $2 million per year to help fund BBB operations.

The Santa Monica policy has prohibited non-commercial advertising for about 15 years. Staff said many municipalities have limited the kind of advertising they accept to ensure government neutrality on political and religious issues, guard against violence directed at bus users and protect revenue that could be lost if commercial advertisers were offended by other ads.

The ability to reject advertising has been upheld by several court cases but those cases have also recently expanded the options for regulation. At the core of the Santa Monica decision was an allegation that the city’s rules were too vague to be enforced fairly and a request to adopt rules similar to those of King County, Washington following a recent court approval of their system.

AIDS Walk Los Angeles has long alleged the city’s policy was illegal and the organization filed a lawsuit against Santa Monica in 2012 claiming the policy violated state and federal free speech guarantees. That case was settled in 2014.

According to Ben Fordham, AIDS Walk Los Angeles event director, AIDS Walk ads ran on buses from 2006 through 2011. At that time, the city’s rules were reinterpreted and the AIDS Walk ads were banned.

“The loss was significant and painful, and there’s no doubt that the inability of AIDS Walk to run ads on BBB has meant fewer charitable dollars to Aids Project Los Angeles in the short term and come at significant cost in the number of hours spent as we sought ways to make up for that loss,” he said.

AIDS Walk is a fundraising event for AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA). While representatives from both organizations said the city should have taken action more quickly, they praised the end result.

“I’m delighted that the Council has chosen an option that allows APLA to once again promote AIDS Walk Los Angeles, as well as other initiatives to educate a broader audience in Santa Monica and the surrounding communities about the care, treatment, and services we offer,” said APLA’s director of government affairs, Phil Curtis.

Under the system approved last week, ads will be accepted unless they are political campaign speech, feature tobacco, alcohol, firearms, and adult-related products and services, are sexual or excretory in subject matter, false or misleading, violate copyright, trademark, or are otherwise unlawful, promote illegal activity, use profanity and violence, demeaning or disparaging, harmful or disruptive to the transit system, use light, noise, and special effects, or create unsafe transit behavior.

“What it appears to me that what has happened is a court has been kind enough to give us a clarification that now allows us to amend our advertising polity to be more in keeping with the values that people have told us should be our values,” said Councilman Kevin McKeown.

“I want to thank the Santa Monica activists who have fought the good fight and ultimately prevailed on this issue of such significance to APLA and the thousands of people we serve,” said Craig E. Thompson, CEO of APLA and APLA Health & Wellness. “This public policy victory on behalf of APLA will also benefit many other important nonprofit organizations and causes whose paid, public service-oriented ads, like ours for AIDS Walk, never should have been banned by that city’s government in the first place. “

Craig Miller, AIDS Walk Los Angeles founder and 32-year Santa Monica resident, has organized a ballot measure proposing Santa Monica’s city attorney become an elected position. Miller said his interest in local politics was sparked by his involvement with the BBB policy but his ballot measure is separate from his work for AIDS Walk and will continue regardless of the council’s decision.

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