The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday charging that the D.C.-area Metro transit system’s decision to ban advertisements for a book written by gay conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos and “message” ads from three other groups, including the ACLU itself, violates the First Amendment.
Noting that Metro initially accepted the ads for Yiannopoulos’ book before abruptly taking them down last month, ACLU lawyers filed a motion asking for “immediate relief” from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for reinstatement of the ads to avoid further loss of revenue from book sales.
The lawsuit says Metro’s decision in 2015 to avoid having to accept “hate” ads by banning all ads “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions” goes far beyond the constitutional free speech limits set by the First Amendment.
The Metro advertising policy also calls for banning ads “intended to influence public policy.”
“This case highlights the consequences of the government’s attempt to suppress all controversial speech on public transit property,” said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the D.C. area and the lead attorney on the case.
“The First Amendment protects the speech of everyone from discriminatory government censorship, whether you agree with the message or not,” he said.
The lawsuit names as plaintiffs Milo Worldwide LLC, the company of Yiannopoulos that’s distributing his book; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA; FEMHEALTH USA, a company that produces an abortion pill; and the ACLU.
ACLU officials said the civil liberties group initiated the lawsuit, among other reasons, when Metro turned down an ad it proposed that simply quoted the First Amendment in English, Arabic, and Spanish.
“The four plaintiffs in this case perfectly illustrate the indivisibility of the First Amendment,” said ACLU senior staff attorney Lee Rowland. “In its zeal to avoid hosting offensive and hateful speech, the government has eliminated speech that makes us think, including the text of the First Amendment itself,” he said.
“The ACLU could not more strongly disagree with the values that Milo Yiannopoulos espouses, but we can’t allow the government to pick and choose which viewpoints are acceptable,” Rowland added.
Metro acknowledged that it removed the ads for the Yiannopoulos book “Dangerous” after receiving a flood of complaints from the public. But Metro officials said they removed the book ads, which included a photo of Yiannopoulos along with the words, “The Most Hated Man on the Internet” after determining the ads violated its 2015 policy.
The Yiannopoulos book ads first appeared on Metro stations five months after the alt-right publication Breitbart dismissed him from his role as an editor after a video surfaced in which Yiannopoulos appeared to be condoning sex between adults and minors. His remarks prompted Simon & Schuster publishing house to rescind its book contract for “Dangerous.” Yiannopoulos has since self-published the book through Amazon.
He issued an apology over his remarks on the video about sex with minors, saying he used a poor choice of words and never intended to imply he favors repealing age of consent laws banning sex between adults and minors.
Long before the video surfaced, Yiannopoulos came under fire for his controversial views on race relations, feminism, immigration, Islam, and transgender rights that some critics have characterized as racist, sexist, xenophobic, and trans phobic.
The Washington Post reports that the ACLU has come under fire from some for its decision to include Yiannopoulos in its First Amendment lawsuit. The Post quoted Massachusetts Democratic congressional candidate Brianna Wu as saying the day the ACLU “works for Milo is the day I decide to never give them a dime.”
The lawsuit calls on the court to order Metro to accept and run the ads submitted by the four plaintiffs on its trains, buses and in Metro stations. It also asks the court to declare parts of Metro’s advertising restrictions unconstitutional on grounds that they violate free speech rights, are arbitrarily enforced, and unconstitutionally vague.