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NAACP Sues over Censorship of Criminal Justice Reform Ad

The NAACP has partnered with the ACLU of Pennsylvania to sue the city of Philadelphia, charging its rejection of an advertisement promoting criminal justice reform to appear at the Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) violates the First Amendment.

The ad was part of a campaign to raise a broad public awareness and education to accompany and highlight the release of the NAACP’s April 2010 report, Misplaced Priorities. It explores how much money America overspends on incarceration at the expense of education, and outlines specific reforms that states can enact to reverse this trend.

Clear Channel manages the advertising space at PHL under contract with the City of Philadelphia. Because it was one of the cities highlighted in the report an it has a significant number of international and domestic visitors who use PHL, the NAACP submitted an ad to Clear Channel.

The ad read: Welcome to America: home to 5% of the world’s people & 25% of the world’s prisoners. Let’s build a better America together.

Clear Channel sent the ad copy to the three persons who comprise the City’s Division of Aviation (DIA). They make decisions regarding which advertisements will or will not be accepted for display at PHL. They rejected the NAACP’s ad without comment at first, but later it said the City does not accept “issue” or “advocacy” advertisements.

The lawsuit alleges that neither the city nor the DIA have “any written policies, procedures, standards or guidelines regarding advertising at PHL.” Instead, it is the decisions of the three individuals- James Tyrrell, DIA’s Deputy Director of Aviation, Property Management/Business Development; Marshall Evans, DIA’s Airport Properties Manger; and Deirdre McDermott-O’Neill, DIA’s Airport Properties Specialist- that embody the City’s policy on advertising at PHL.

The NAACP cited several instances of the City and Clear Channel accepting “other issue-oriented, educational, and advocacy advertisements for display at PHL.” Some of those ads pertain to wildlife preservation, global warming, troop support, racial equality, and how to find sexual predators.

“The walls of Philadelphia International Airport are public space, and the city officials do not have the right to suppress any group’s viewpoint based on their own beliefs or political considerations,” stated NAACP General Counsel Kim Keenan. “Our First Amendment right to free speech is just as strong as that of the U.S.O., the World Wildlife Federation, or any other advocacy group that has graced the walls of the airport,” Keenan said, referring to ads from other organizations the city accepted.

The ban on this ad was limited to PHL. The NAACP was able to place its ad on a rolling billboard in the City and on a private billboard on a street outside the airport. Had the NAACP sought to promote the ad via leaflet, it would have been allowed to do so under PHL’s policy that allows issue-oriented, advocacy leafleting.

“The government cannot pick and choose which speech it deems acceptable and which it does not,” said Chris Hansen, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “The fact that the airport accepted some political issue ads but not the NAACP’s shows the arbitrary nature of the city’s unwritten and undefined policy. It is a clear violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against the government favoring some speakers over others.” See: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. City of Philadelphia, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Pa.), Case No. 2:11-cv-06533-CMR.

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Related legal case

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. City of Philadelphia