ALCU's MaryCatherine Roper on bus ad controversy

(Design update 4/4/12)

Mary Catherine Roper -- senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and a frequent guest on Steve Corbett's radio show -- appeared on WILK Newsradio today at the request of the host to discuss legal issues surrounding COLTS' refusal of the NEPA Freethought Society's really, really, really inoffensive bus advertisments.

Here are some highlights of the ten minute audio clip:

MaryCatherine Roper:
...I looked at the COLTS advertising policy and I didn't have to ask any more questions. The policy says that COLTS gets to decide in its own discretion what is too controversial and therefore they won't subject their readership to it. The one thing that you can never do as a government deciding who gets to speak and who doesn't get to speak is say I'm going to apply my own subjective undisclosed criteria to say that thing you want to say. Nah. That upsets me and you can't put it out there.

Mary Catherine Roper:
It's clearly a government operation and here's the thing. COLTS doesn't have to put ads on its buses, but if it's going to sell bus ads because it's government and, you know, if I owned a billboard and I wanted only certain ads to go up on my billboard, that's fine because it's a private billboard. But when you're talking about a government billboard, they don't get to discriminate like you say on the basis of the message. So they don't have to take ads, but if they do take ads, they got to treat everybody the same.

MaryCatherine Roper:
When the government has the power to decide who gets to speak and who doesn't get to speak, they are very, very strictly limited in how they exercise that power and one thing they cannot do is say your ideas are acceptable, Justin's are not acceptable...

I also invited all the board members [of COLTS] to come in this free-for-all freewheeling format to discuss the differences we have in terms of ideas. They rejected my invitation by the way. No one wanted to come on the air and talk about it.

MaryCatherine Roper:
If you're opening up an ad space, you're opening up an ad space. We're sort of disturbed when the government says certain ideas are acceptable ideas to have out in the public and certain ideas are not acceptable to have out in the public.

[After mentioning talking with the spokeswoman for COLTS] Why risk spending taxpayer money in litigation when you can abide by what seems to be case law with regard to first ammendment. After all, isn't that what good government advocates in the first place? And obviously she didn't have an answer for that and I didn't expect her to have it.

MaryCatherine Roper:
If [COLTS] doesn't change their position, we are certainly going to offer to help bring it to a court because it's really clear that isn't an acceptable way to do business.

MaryCatherine Roper:
You've got to wonder...you'd hope that your public officials would be thinking 'now what is the right policy here?' And I understand that some people think the right policy is to avoid controversy at every turn, but that's really not the job of the government and frankly if you went into government thinking you'd avoid controversy, you've had an error in judgment and you need another line of work.

MaryCatherine Roper:
It would be a shame if they chose silence over respecting people's constitutional rights.