PITTSBURGH - Port Authority of Allegheny County must run an ad sponsored by the ACLU Foundation of Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh League of Young Voters Education Fund educating bus riders that people with felony convictions have the right to vote in Pennsylvania, a federal judge ruled yesterday.
The ACLU and the League sought to display an ad on Port Authority buses prior to the 2006 general election. Port Authority rejected the proposed ad, initially claiming that it violated the agency's commercial-only advertising policy. After the League and ACLU filed suit, Port Authority also claimed that the ad violated its policy banning political ads, but the court found that justification to be "a post-hoc rationalization" rather than the real basis for Port Authority's decision.
Evidence presented at a December 2008 trial showed that Port Authority had accepted numerous ads on similar subjects as the proposed ad. The defendants' refusal to run the ad "constituted viewpoint discrimination because the decision was based on their subjective belief that the message of the proposed advertisement was controversial or a 'hot button' issue," U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry said in his opinion.
"The plaintiffs are thrilled with Judge McVerry's decision. His opinion represents a strong victory on behalf of the First Amendment," said Jon Pushinsky, an ACLU-PA cooperating lawyer in Pittsburgh. "The plaintiffs can now move ahead with the important work of their organizations. The League and ACLU look forward to running Port Authority bus advertisements educating the public about important rights."
Under Pennsylvania law, felons who have been released from prison, or who will be freed by the time of the election, are eligible to register to vote.
"The idea that ex-felons in Pennsylvania cannot vote is a common misconception," said Sara Rose, a staff attorney with ACLU-PA. "We wanted to run ads on Port Authority buses to correct that misconception, and we continue to believe that bus ads can be an effective way to educate people about ex-felons' voting rights."
In addition to Pushinsky and Rose, the plaintiffs are also represented by ACLU-PA Legal Director Witold Walczak.
The case is Pittsburgh League of Young Voters Education Fund v. Port Authority of Allegheny County, 2:06-cv-1064 (W.D. Pa., McVerry, J.). More information about the case, including a copy of the original complaint and the judge's decision, can be found at: /our-work/legal/legaldocket/leagueofyoungvotersetalvpo/