RESIDENTS CHALLENGE BUS AD BAN
Once upon a time, Santa Monica made headlines as “the most radical city in America.” “60 Minutes” dubbed it “Left City.”
Several months ago, Forbes magazine named downtown Santa Monica one of the nation’s “best shopping downtowns.”
And during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation will present the City with a proclamation declaring it a finalist for the “Most Business-Friendly City in Los Angeles County” Award.
City officials relish these toy awards. Somewhere, deep in City Hall, I imagine a mantelpiece laden with them. But as far as I know, there isn’t one for the Most Resident-Friendly City in Los Angeles County. And if there were, Santa Monica wouldn’t win it.
At its September 11 meeting, the Council reaffirmed a 2001 policy banning
non-commercial ads on Big Blue Buses.
Last week, AIDS Walk LA founder Craig Miller, Lisa Brisse and Paloma Bennett, all Santa Monica residents, filed a lawsuit against the City, challenging the ban, and seeking an injunction to permit them to advertise AIDS WALK LA, which is scheduled for October 14, on the buses.
Miller believes the City’s policy is unconstitutional, a violation of our absolute right to free speech and equal protection. He said, “All three of us love our city. We’re sure as heck not seeking any money. .Most importantly, we view it as a violation of the values of the people of my city of Santa Monica.” We agree.
Last year the City told AIDS Walk L.A. that it couldn’t continue to advertise on the Big Blue Bus as the 2001 policy prohibits noncommercial ads on buses, in order to prevent Santa Monica’s bus system from becoming an “open forum.”
Since the Constitution makes the entire country an “open forum,” and, to our knowledge, does not confer special privileges on commercial ads and/or buses, the City’s policy seems not only unconstitutional, but goofy.
In spite of the 2001 ban on noncommercial ads, AIDS Walk L.A. continued to advertise on Big Blue until last year. “I think the City employees who allowed the ads to be placed did not carefully take into account that noncommercial advertising was not allowed,” said Deputy City Attorney Anthony Serritella. “It’s a question of the primary purpose of the ad. Does it promote a product or service? That’s how commercial activity is defined within the guidelines…the City has its guidelines and intends to enforce them.”
The Santa Monica City Council voted 4 to 3 to reaffirm the policy as the majority apparently believes that allowing non-commercial advertisements might cause the buses to become open forums for potentially offensive debates.
But censorship, especially anticipatory censorship, is far more offensive. Commercial advertising is frequently offensive, of course, but it’s also lucrative.
Council member Kevin McKeown said, “ The Big Blue Bus is the rolling ambassador of Santa Monica throughout the entire region, If we let any kind of message that’s going through L.A. and other communities, it’s going to reflect on not just on the Big Blue Bus, but also on Santa Monica.”
What? We’re more concerned about embarrassing our buses than preserving freedom of speech?
AIDS Walk Los Angeles is not only an extraordinary event, it raises much-needed funds. It’s an L.A. tradition, and a most worthy one.
Miller’s suit will be discussed by the Council in closed session
tonight, but he plans to speak at 5:30 p.m. before it closets itself, object to the perpetuation of this mindless policy and demand that this unconstitutional rule be abandoned and AIDS WALK L.A. be permitted to advertise its October 14 edition on the buses. We hope other residents
will follow him to the podium.
You can also flood the Council office with emails:council.smgov.net.