PHILADELPHIA - At the opening of trial today, the American Civil Liberties Union argued to a federal court that the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority’s censorship of advertising by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) is prohibited by the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. The dispute in the case centers around proposed ads that CIR planned to publish on SEPTA vehicles that promoted an investigative report on racial disparities in the home mortgage industry, including in Philadelphia.
“SEPTA still doesn’t get it,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “As a government agency, it does not have the authority to prohibit speech because people at SEPTA think the content is political or controversial. It can’t censor speech based on totally subjective standards.”
In February, CIR published its report, finding that white people were more likely than Black people to receive mortgage loans in 61 metro areas in the United States. In Philadelphia in 2015 and 2016, white home buyers were ten times more likely than their Black counterparts to receive conventional mortgage loans.
CIR intended to purchase advertising on SEPTA vehicles featuring an information graphic about the findings, but SEPTA deemed the ads “political” and a “matter of public debate” in violation of its policy, primarily because a banking industry association disputed the report.
CIR was founded in 1977 and is the nation’s first nonprofit investigative news organization. Its work has been widely recognized for its excellence, impact, and groundbreaking creativity.
SEPTA policy prohibits advertising with “political” content, which is broadly defined to include anything related to government policies, as well as advertising on “matters of public debate.” The lawsuit asks the court to overturn that provision of the policy because it is prohibited by the First Amendment’s free speech clause.
“SEPTA’s refusal to run CIR’s ads denies the public the opportunity to learn about the troubling disparities that their reporting uncovered,” said Molly Tack-Hooper, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “As a public agency, SEPTA doesn’t have the power to reject these ads simply because the banking industry took issue with CIR’s reporting.”
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. CIR is represented by Mary Catherine Roper and Molly Tack-Hooper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; Brian Hauss and Jacob Hutt of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project; John S. Stapleton, Dylan J. Steinberg, and Rebecca Santoro Melley of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller; Seth F. Kreimer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School; and D. Victoria Baranetsky, general counsel of The Center for Investigative Reporting. For more information, visit aclupa.org/CIRvSEPTA.