A judge rules Metro violated free speech rights by rejecting religious ad

A U.S. District Court has ruled that Metro must now display ads that it had once rejected. The court says the D.C. transit agency violated a nonprofit’s rights to free speech.

The advertisements were from a Texas-based nonprofit called WallBuilders. The posters, meant for Metro buses, displayed the word “Christian?” imposed over paintings of America’s Founding Fathers. Beneath the header, it said “To find out about the faith of our founders, go to Wallbuilders.com” along with a QR code.

One of the two ads proposed by WallBuilders for an ad campaign on WMATA buses. (Courtesy of WallBuilders)

The first two posters were rejected by WMATA because they violated a standing guideline prohibiting ads that are “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions.”

The second two posters the organization submitted to the transit agency used the same images but tried to limit the overall religious message, cutting down the text to only “visit wallbuilders.com.”

WMATA ultimately rejected all four posters, saying that the QR codes led to political advocacy viewpoints on the WallBuilders website. The nonprofit responded that they refused to remove the QR codes and the name of the organization’s website.

WallBuilders, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit in December challenging Metro’s ad guidelines as violations of the First Amendment.

U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell wrote in her opinion that those guidelines are “not a reasonable restriction on speech” and that they are also vague.

“We are pleased that this ruling moves us one step closer to ending WMATA’s arbitrary censorship of speech about public issues,” said Arthur Spitzer, senior counsel at the ACLU’s D.C. chapter in a statement. “In a democracy, the government has no right to pick and choose which viewpoints are acceptable.”

The lawsuit will continue, according to the ACLU. It will ask the court to declare the WMATA guidelines prohibiting “issue ads” and ads with religious content unconstitutional. It will also ask the court to order the transit agency to accept and run advertisements that would violate those current guidelines.

WTOP has reached out to WMATA for comment.

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Luke Lukert

Since joining WTOP Luke Lukert has held just about every job in the newsroom from producer to web writer and now he works as a full-time reporter. He is an avid fan of UGA football. Go Dawgs!

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