by Travis Weber
December 13, 2017
Last week, a federal court ruled that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was permitted to reject an ad (pictured above) that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of D.C. wanted to run on the sides of area buses during the Christmas season.
Now why would such an ad be excluded?
In holding that WMATA’s commercial advertising guidelines (under which the ad was excluded) did not violate the First Amendment and could be permitted to stand, the court reviewed the guidelines under a standard for speech in nonpublic forums (which public buses are generally considered to be). For nonpublic forums, the government can discriminate based on content but not on viewpoint, and here, WMATA has a policy of not allowing certain types of content on its buses, including religious content.
While WMATA would be able to eliminate religious content from its buses, the Archdiocese had argued that WMATA was discriminating based on viewpoint because it was happy to have other Christmas ads which are religiously related and which convey the view that Christmas is a commercial holiday, but that WMATA didn’t want to accept the Archdiocese’s view that Christmas is noncommercial and should be focused on the gift of Christ (as the above poster does).
The court rejected this view, ruling that the bus guidelines did not discriminate based on viewpoint but only on content—noting that “religion is excluded as a subject matter.”
But is all of “religion” really being excluded? It doesn’t seem so. WMATA permits Christmas-related ads from the Salvation Army, and ads from a religiously-focused yoga group.
Yet, as the court recognizes later in its opinion, the guidelines prohibit ads that “promote” or “oppose” religious beliefs. The court relies on these guidelines to distinguish the Archdiocese’s proposed ad from ads by the Salvation Army and a yoga studio, which WMATA permitted despite their religious overtones, claiming they don’t promote specific beliefs. So it is not religion per se that WMATA wants to prohibit, but rather messages opposed to or promoting religious belief. And since the Archdiocese is understandably seeking to promote its own religious belief in its own ad which it would be paying for, WMATA declared it off limits (thus, the court’s comment that “religion is excluded”—seeming to refer to religion generally—isn’t even correct).
We should be especially wary of government restrictions on one’s viewpoint. They are the most dangerous at their core, and go to the heart of why we have the First Amendment. In ruling for WMATA here, the court observed that under the lower standard of scrutiny applied, the government could rely on administrative convenience and the avoidance of controversy as a legitimate basis to exclude ads—as it and other authorities have done in response to Islam-related ads (indeed, the whole reason WMATA and other authorities have chosen to lower the level of scrutiny they have to meet and eliminate whole areas of discussion from their buses is to avoid legally having to host controversial Islam-related messages—now, the same ad which has run in years past in the D.C. metro system is not being permitted on buses). But suppressing a message for fear of the response is the essence of the heckler’s veto, and is no way for a free country to act.
If for no other reason, this is perhaps why the courts should be inclined to rule for the Archdiocese here, and be loath to affirm any policy which could be used to justify views the government doesn’t like.