On May 2, 2018, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and co-counsel filed a federal lawsuit against the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) over its refusal to allow The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) to advertise on SEPTA’s vehicles.
CIR, the nation’s first nonprofit investigative news organization, sought to advertise reporting from CIR’s news site, Reveal, which analyzed 31 million public records made available through the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act and found dramatic racial disparities in the conventional home mortgage market in 61 areas across the country, including Philadelphia. CIR’s proposed ad would have featured an informative graphic showcasing the public data that CIR’s journalists collected and CIR’s analysis of that data.
SEPTA rejected CIR’s proposal, citing two provisions of SEPTA’s advertising policy, which ban ads that are “political in nature” in that they directly or indirectly implicate government action or policy, and ads that express an “opinion, position, or viewpoint on matters of public debate.”
The lawsuit alleges that SEPTA’s bans on “political” ads and ads that touch on “matters of public debate” violate the First Amendment in several ways. Among other legal theories, CIR argues that the provisions are unconstitutionally vague, giving officials broad, standardless discretion to censor protected speech and that they discriminate based on viewpoint by censoring controversial speech. On September 25, Judge Baylson denied the plaintiff's motion for preliminary injunction without prejudice and scheduled the case for trial on October 1, 2018. After trial, Judge Baylson ruled that portions of SEPTA's prohibitions on "political" ads and ads addressing "matters of public debate" were unconstitutionally vague and "incapable of reasoned application," but upheld SEPTA's denial of CIR's proposed ad.
On September 14, 2020, the federal Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the district court decision, ruling that the SEPTA policy is overbroad and that SEPTA violated CIR's First Amendment rights in denying its advertisement.