PHILADELPHIA - A federal appeals court has struck down a policy of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority that forbids advertising regarding issues of public debate on SEPTA vehicles and properties. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that SEPTA violated the free speech rights of the Center for Investigative Reporting when it refused to run ads promoting a CIR series on racial discrimination in home mortgage lending in 2018.
The CIR report found racial discrimination in mortgage lending in 61 areas of the country, including in Philadelphia. CIR is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, Professor Seth Kreimer of University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, CIR’s general counsel, and the law firms LeVan Muhic Stapleton LLC and Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller.
In reaching its conclusion, the court found that SEPTA’s policy prohibiting advertising that it deems “political” and on “matters of public debate” can’t be applied in a consistent, logical manner.
“The Center for Investigative Reporting has important information to share with the public, that racial discrimination is rampant in mortgage lending in Philadelphia,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “As a government agency, SEPTA is limited in its ability to decide who does and does not get to be heard in the public space.”
A district court had previously ruled that the SEPTA policy was unconstitutional but did not overturn the agency’s decision to deny the CIR ads.
“CIR is immeasurably pleased with the Third Circuit's decision,” said CIR’s general counsel, D. Victoria Baranetsky. “Our journalists spent over a year reporting on modern-day redlining, which resulted in an investigation called ‘Kept Out’, winning the duPont, Peabody, and Edward R. Murrow awards.
“SEPTA denied CIR's reporting from the ad space. Finding that SEPTA cannot restrict ‘political’ information in a reasonable fashion is not only a victory for our newsroom, but this country and the First Amendment. Today, more than ever, it is important that courts watchdog against government officials' unbridled discretion that can easily slip into censorship of the press and public.”
The appeals court returned the case to the district court with an order to issue an injunction against SEPTA’s enforcement of its policy.
More information on this lawsuit, Center for Investigative Reporting v. SEPTA, is available at aclupa.org/CIR.