Stung after Santa Monica city leaders refused to allow them the opportunity to advertise on the city’s transit line, the company of the producer and founder of a high profile civic event filed a lawsuit against Santa Monica late last month.
The City Council voted Sept. 11 to ask its city staff to review its current policy regarding advertising on the Big Blue Bus, which currently permits commercial firms to advertise on its buses but not nonprofit organizations.
Representatives from AIDS Project Los Angeles say they had been in dialogue with city leaders regarding the bus line’s advertising guidelines prior to the motion that was presented at the council meeting by Mayor Richard Bloom.
Craig Miller, whose company MZA Events, Inc. has produced AIDS Project Los Angeles for several years, decided to file suit against the city after the council vote. He said his decision to pursue legal action came only after he was ignored for six months leading up to the vote by the city’s staff, and the council’s decision to continue its existing policy was the last straw.
Santa Monica’s governing body also voted down a motion by Bloom that would have permitted the temporary allowance for groups like AIDS Project Los Angeles.
Representatives from AIDS Project Los Angeles were livid after the council meeting.
“This absurd new policy targets not only AIDS Walk Los Angeles ads, but all other nonprofit ads which help foster community spirit and provide valuable information to the public,” Executive Director of AIDS Project Los Angeles Craig E. Thompson asserted the day after the council meeting. “Santa Monica city leaders are in effect providing an economic advantage to corporate interests and a disadvantage to community advocates. We’re calling on our supporters to join us in speaking out against this twisted set of priorities.”
Miller is joined in the lawsuit by two Santa Monica residents, Lisa Brisse and Paloma Bennett.
The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to the city’s advertising policy as well as attorneys’ fees. They are also seeking a temporary restraining order that would allow them to advertise for the Oct. 14 AIDS Walk.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys, Jeffery Kravitz and Alan Basil, assert in their brief that by disallowing the opportunity to advertise on the Big Blue Bus, their clients’ First Amendment rights were violated.
Despite the current policy, Miller’s company has run paid announcements on the sides of the Big Blue Bus for six years.
“The advertising on the city of Santa Monica’s buses has been a substantial and integral part of the campaign in support of AIDS Walk Los Angeles and its efforts to raise funds and awareness related to AIDS research and treatment. Plaintiffs are informed and believe that without their advertising on defendant’s buses, AIDS Walk Los Angeles and those benefitting from it will be negatively impacted in terms of funds raised and distributed, numbers of participants and communication between AIDS Walk Los Angeles and AIDS Project Los Angeles,” the complaint states.
The complaint alleges that past and potentially future event sponsors could also be harmed and may choose not to get involved with either entity in future ventures. “Those sponsors may be less inclined to sponsor AIDS Walk Los Angeles in the future if their involvement in the event were to be communicated to a smaller audience prior to the Oct. 14 walk and future AIDS Walks,” the attorneys allege.
According to the transportation agency’s policy statement, “(The Big Blue Bus) only licenses advertising space for commercial advertisements. A commercial advertisement has as its primary purpose the promotion of a product for sale or a service for hire by the public generally.
“(The Big Blue Bus) cannot license advertising space for any prohibited advertisements.”
Santa Monica Deputy City Attorney Anthony Serritello said the city anticipated legal action from Miller. “They had given us notice before the complaint was filed,” he said.
Miller, who has lived in Santa Monica for nearly 30 years, said the council’s vote was out of step with the city’s history and the views of the residents that he knows.
“What Santa Monica city leaders are doing and have done is completely inconsistent with the values held dear by the vast majority of Santa Monicans,” Miller told The Argonaut. “It is both a saddening and frustrating situation.”
Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie attempted to guide the council during its discussion on the advertising policy.
“The city can certainly adopt a policy of allowing a non-profit to advertise on the buses,” she explained. “What the city cannot do lawfully is pick and choose between nonprofit ads and commercial ads.”
Miller is unequivocal in his belief that the city, Moutrie in particular, deprived AIDS Project Los Angeles of its free speech when the council voted against allowing the interim policy for nonprofit organizations.
Brisse, who owns State of the Heart, a personal training and fitness center in the Loews Hotel, said she has lost friends and family members to AIDS so the cause is very dear to her. She finds it difficult to believe that the city would take the position that it has regarding nonprofit groups and its policy on advertising on the city’s buses.
“I have a hard time understanding it. It just doesn’t make sense to me,” said Brisse, who has participated in two AIDS walks and is a co-leader of Santa Monicans for AIDS Walk Los Angeles.
Serritello said the policy on which entities can use the Big Blue Bus for advertising was designed to meet constitutional standards. “The guidelines that have been in place were carefully crafted to be consistent with federal law,” he said. “We believe that the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims are without merit.”
The plaintiffs’ lawyers believe otherwise.
“No compelling interest justifies the refusal to make a public forum available for the promotion of AIDS Walk Los Angeles. The publication of AIDS Walk 2012 advertisements does not create a ‘clear and present danger,’” they wrote in their 22-page brief. “In fact, no legitimate governmental reason was articulated for refusing plaintiffs advertising space on the Big Blue Bus. The decision to refuse plaintiffs advertising space was arbitrary and capricious.”
Miller took exception to Moutrie’s arguments, as well as her hypothetical example given at the meeting that if the city permitted non-profits to advertise on its buses, it could be compelled to allow organizations whose messages were not in line with Santa Monica’s views to run advertisements as well.
“Because of an ad that has not been requested to run in Santa Monica but could be requested to run in Santa Monica in the future, her position is that what we the people of Santa Monica should do is silence the voices of every nonprofit organization and charitable event,” he asserted.
Miller said he met with Bloom at his home weeks before the matter was raised in open session and was surprised by the mayor’s response to his request to advertise on the municipal buses.
“He told me, ‘Well, we can’t just direct staff as to what to do,’” Miller recalled. “And I found that shocking.
“For Richard Bloom to take that position… it was truly shocking.”
The next hearing will be on Thursday, Oct. 4 where the court is expected to rule on the plaintiffs’ petition for an injunction.
Asked what the city would do if the ruling goes against Santa Monica, Serritello responded, “We’d have to examine the basic ruling as well as its scope.”
Miller is confident that he has a strong case against the city.
“I think it’s very clear that we’re right on the issues and we want to see a balanced approach return to the Big Blue Bus advertising policy and I think we’re going to prevail,” he said.
Bloom did not return calls for comment.