By Jason Islas
September 13, 2012 -- The Santa Monica City Council voted 4 to 3 Tuesday not to change a 12-year-old policy that prevents non-commercial organizations from advertising on the Big Blue Bus.
Citing concerns that allowing non-commercial advertisements on Santa Monica's buses would cause them to become an open forum for potentially offensive debate, the council voted not to reverse a long-standing policy that, until recently, had not been enforced.
“Once you allow the side of a City bus to be used for issue or political messaging, you have to accept issue or political messaging from all people who wish to pay for it.” said Council member Kevin McKeown.
The Big Blue Bus is "the rolling ambassador of Santa Monica throughout the entire region,” McKeown said. “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.”
The council revisited the issue after ads for AIDS Walk Los Angeles, which had been appearing on the municipal buses for five years, were yanked when the City began enforcing the law this year.
As a result, Mayor Richard Bloom asked the Council to consider an interim change in policy that would allow non-commercial organizations to advertise while staff looked at how such ads could be allowed it permanently without buses becoming a public forum.
Though Bloom did want to see a policy that would allow AIDS Walk Los Angeles to advertise, he worried about offensive language making it onto Santa Monica buses.
Bloom mentioned an advertisement that ran on 10 San Francisco buses, sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
However, City officials made it clear that a return to the status quo would not allow AIDS Walk Los Angeles or other non-profits to continue to advertise on the buses.
The fact that, for the past five years, AIDS Walk Los Angeles had been able to advertise with the Big Blue Bus was “a failure of administration,” said City Manager Rod Gould.
“The status quo since 2000,” Gould said, “is to only allow commercial speech on the sides of buses.”
Council member Bob Holbrook, who voted against changing the policy, referred back to a debate that garnered national attention over the use of public space for Nativity scenes in Santa Monica. (“Santa Monica Nativity Display Nudged Out by Atheists,” December 9, 2011)
On that matter, the Council voted to no longer have the displays in the park after City Attorney Marsha Moutrie noted that, as long as it allowed the displays, the City had no legal right to control their content.
Bloom, Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis and Council Member Terry O'Day voted to change the policy.