By Jason Islas
September 27, 2012 -- On Monday, AIDS Walk Los Angeles founder Craig Miller and two other residents of Santa Monica filed a lawsuit against the City in order to change a decade-old policy that keeps noncommercial ads off buses.
According to the Santa Monica City Attorney's Office, at an October 4 hearing, the plaintiffs will also seek an injunction which would allow them to advertise AIDS Walk L.A. -- scheduled for October 14 -- on buses for the duration of the suit.
“All three of us love our city. We're sure as heck not seeking any money,” said Miller, who is arguing that the City's guidelines are unconstitutional.
The other two plaintiffs are local business owner Lisa Brisse and recent Santa Monica High School graduate Paloma Bennett.
The suit was filed after a request by Mayor Richard Bloom for the City to review its policy was voted down 4-to-3 at a Council meeting on September 11. ("Santa Monica Council Won't Change Bus Ad Policy, Despite Non-Profit Protest," September 13, 2012)
“We consider (the policy to be) a violation of free speech, a violation of equal protection, but most importantly, we view it as a violation of the values of the people of my city of Santa Monica,” he said.
The controversy started last year when the City told AIDS Walk L.A. that it couldn't advertise on the Big Blue Bus because of a long-standing policy that prohibits noncommercial speech on buses.
That policy, adopted in 2001, is meant to prevent Santa Monica's bus system from becoming an open forum, officials said.
However, despite this long-standing policy, AIDS Walk L.A. has advertised its annual event on the buses in Santa Monica for several years.
“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,” said Serritella. “Does it promote a product or service?”
“That's how commercial activity is defined within the guidelines,” he said.
Santa Monica's policy is similar to the one held by the regional Los Angeles Metro Transit Authority (MTA).
MTA's advertising policy says that acceptable ads must promote the “sale, lease or other form of financial benefit a product, service, event or other property interest in primarily a commercial manner for primarily a commercial purpose.”
“We've had a policy since 2000 to not accept noncommercial ads,” said a spokesperson for MTA, adding that AIDS Walk L.A. briefly advertised on MTA buses because CBS Outdoor -- the company which handles MTA's advertising -- “had misunderstood the whole AIDS Walk criteria.”
“They thought it was a commercial venture,” he said.
Unlike Santa Monica, however, MTA is looking into changing its policy.
L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who sits on MTA's Board of Directors, has asked the Board to reconsider its policy to accommodate advertising for events such as The March of Dimes and AIDS Walk L.A, but without opening up the buses to advertisements from any organization.
Officials at Yaroslavsky's office said that Washington D.C. -- which allows organizations that have a sponorship relationship with the municipal government to advertise on buses -- is one model being considered.
Santa Monica officials, however, may take some more convincing.
“The City has its guidelines and intends to enforce them,” said Serritella.