PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today filed a lawsuit against the Port Authority of Allegheny County for their refusal to run an educational advertisement on buses that explains the voting rights of ex-offenders. The complaint was filed on behalf of the Pittsburgh League of Young Voters and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which jointly attempted to purchase space on Port Authority buses for a non-partisan ad that they wish to run prior to the November elections.
The Port Authority has refused repeated requests to consider the ad. They refused to even provide the groups with advertising rates for the buses, pointing to their stated policy of only accepting commercial advertisements.
A review of ads accepted by the Port Authority, however, revealed that they have previously accepted a variety of non-commercial ads, including those from Just Harvest, the Women’s Law Project, and the Fair Housing Partnership, all of which in some way discuss people’s rights. Additionally, Port Authority has run its own ads against discrimination and lauding Rosa Parks.
"First Amendment free-speech guarantees require the government to treat all who wish to communicateabout the same subject on an equal footing," said Jon Pushinsky, an ACLU cooperating attorney working on the case. "It simply makes no constitutional sense to say that one group can advertise about housingor other legal rights, but that the League of Young Voters and the ACLU are prohibited from posting an advertisement about voting rights,"he continued.
The ad rejected by the Port Authority is part of a public-education initiative launched by a coalition of local groups that seeks to increase civic engagement by formerly incarcerated ex-offenders. An important component of the project is increasing voter turnout among those who have been involved with the criminal justice system. Since 2000, ex-offenders who were convicted of felonies in Pennsylvania can vote once they have been released from prison, even if they are still on probation or parole. Because the law has been altered twice in the last decade, however, many ex-offenders are under the false impression that they cannot vote, and thus do not even try to register.
"A lot of my friends and family members think they can’t vote, even though they finished serving time years ago,"says Taili Thompson, an ex-offender from the North Side who is involved with the voting rights project. "I’m trying to get my community more involved in the political process to do something positive, but it’s hard because a lot of people don’t believe they can exercise the right to vote." Based on information from local focus groups about the best way to reach the affected community, advertising on buses is expected to be highly effective. "This ad campaign would really help get the word out," added Thompson.
Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Legal Director and Mr. Pushinsky’s co-counsel in the case, noted that, "People have died for the right to vote. But even if Port Authority doesn’t value that right, or they don’t want to support ex-offenders, the First Amendment prohibits them from refusing these public-service ads."
The ACLU has received foundation grants to support the ex-offender-voting-rights project, including money earmarked for the bus advertising.
The case is League of Young Voters, et al. v. Port Authority of Allegheny County, et al. Attorneys on the case are Pushinsky, Walczak, and Marc Sternberger. The lawsuit was filed this morning in the U. S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, located in Pittsburgh. The ACLU has also filed a motion asking the court to issue a preliminary injunction directing Port Authority to run the voter-education advertisements in time for the ads to be effective prior to the October voter-registration deadline. A copy of the complaint can be found here.