Saturday, August 18, 2018
D.C. Circuit Remands Metro's Ad Restriction for Reasonableness Determination
The D.C. Circuit ruled in American Freedom Defense Initiative v. WMATA that the D.C. Metro's restriction on certain advertisements was a view-point neutral regulation in a nonpublic forum. But the court nevertheless remanded the case for a determination whether the restriction was "reasonable."
The ruling sends the case back to the district court for further proceedings. "Reasonableness" is usually a very low bar (thus favoring Metro), but the Court just this Term determined that a view-point neutral regulation in a nonpublic forum wasn't "reasonable." That case, Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, leaves the door cracked for AFDI on remand.
The ruling follows the recent Archdiocese of Washington v. WMATA, where the same court ruled that Metro's restriction on religious advertising was a permissible view-point neutral regulation in a nonpublic forum.
The AFDI case arose when AFDI sought to place an ad on Metro that, according to AFDI, was designed to "make the point that the First Amendment will not yield to Sharia-adherent Islamists who want to enforce so-called blasphemy laws here in the United States, whether through threats of violence or through the actions of complicit government officials." Around the same time, Metro was considering restricting ads, given the increasing number of complaints about ads disrespecting President Obama and ads on hot-button issues. A Metro employee told the Board that AFDI's proposed ad was the "straw that broke the camel's back," and the Board approved a temporary moratorium. The Board then rejected AFDI's ad under the moratorium, and later issued permanent restrictions on certain ads. The permanent policy, now in place, prohibits ads on "an issue on which there are varying opinions," politics (pro or con any candidate), religion (again, pro or con), and "industry position[s] or industry goal[s] without direct commercial benefit to the advertiser" (again, pro or con).
AFDI sued, arguing that the moratorium (but not the permanent policy) violated the First Amendment.
The court ruled first that the case was not moot. The court said that the permanent policy represented the same restrictions under the moratorium, and so AFDI's claim against the moratorium was still a live dispute, but now against the permanent policy. (Judge Karen LaCraft Henderson dissented on this point and thus would have dodged the merits.)
The court next said that Metro was a nonpublic forum (under Archdiocese of Washington), and that the restrictions were view-point neutral. The court rejected AFDI's arguments that the policy was view-point discriminatory because (1) Metro adopted the policy in response to AFDI (no evidence of this, and the straw-that-broke-the-camel's-back comment only meant that AFDI's ad, along with a whole bunch of other ads, led to the policy), (2) the policy was facially view-point based (not so under Lehman v. City of Shaker Heights), and (3) the religion restriction is inherently view-point based (AFDI didn't sufficiently develop or press this argument).
But while a view-point neutral regulation in a nonpublic forum usually satisfies the First Amendment, it also has to be reasonable. The court said that there was enough of a question here to remand the case for a determination of reasonableness under this Term's Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky (holding that a restriction on political attire in a poling place wasn't reasonable).