Santa Monica, Calif., is a famously liberal community, to the point that some call it the “People’s Republic,” either as compliment or insult. So it’s a bit unexpected that the Los Angeles suburb is embroiled in a controversy involving its rejection of an AIDS fundraiser advertisement.
AIDS Walk Los Angeles had been placing ads for the fund-raising event on Santa Monica’s Big Blue Buses for six years, paid for at full price, so the walk’s operators were surprised when city officials turned down a bus ad for the 2012 walk, held in October. The city cited a policy against running noncommercial advertising—a policy that had been on the books for several years but had not had not been enforced. The reason for the policy: If the city accepted ads from one group, it would have to accept them from all, under the First Amendment, and some of them might prove controversial.
“Their position is that free speech is too hazardous of a practice,” says Craig Miller, founder and senior organizer of AIDS Walk Los Angeles and a longtime Santa Monica resident. “Our position is that their position is totally absurd.”
Miller and his colleagues tried to persuade city officials to lift the ban on noncommercial ads, but after the City Council refused to do so, Miller and his company, MZA Events, which produces the AIDS walk, filed suit in September, seeking to have the policy changed. Two AIDS walk volunteers are plaintiffs as well, and the suit is pending in federal court.
Santa Monica officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but Mayor Richard Bloom had previously said he feared the buses could become a forum for “counterproductive speech.” A Los Angeles Times article reported that Bloom cited an August incident in San Francisco in which a political group called the American Freedom Defense Initiative placed an ad on a city bus calling Israel “the civilized man” and its adversaries “the savage.” San Francisco’s transit agency subsequently condemned the ad’s language and initiated a review of its advertising policy.
Miller is skeptical about talk of “counterproductive speech.” “Isn’t that any speech we disagree with?” he says. He adds that there is a need for some limits on speech, but Americans always “have been careful to make sure any limits are a reaction to a clear and present danger.” There is no such danger in the AIDS walk ads, which had generated no complaints, he says, and the walk’s organizers have never had problems with any other advertising venue.
While the suit remains pending, Miller thinks there might be a change in the policy with the reconfiguration of the City Council after November’s election. Two members who favored letting the AIDS walk advertise were reelected, and one who was opposed did not seek reelection. Nor did Mayor Bloom. The council will choose a new mayor from among its seven members, as is the practice in Santa Monica.
“We have a very optimistic sense of our ability to put together four votes for a commonsense resolution,” Miller says. Then, he says, the Big Blue Bus will again be “a vehicle not only for those seeking to sell goods, but those seeking to do good.”