ACLU challenges Sacramento airport over ad ban

07/21/2014 12:00 AM

07/21/2014 9:55 AM

In one advertisement, three workers stand with an “Undocumented Californian Facts” box depicted as a food label on one of them. Among the statistics shown: 92 percent work and pay $2.7 billion in taxes.

Another ad shows several people with the statement, “1.4 million undocumented tax-paying Californians lack health coverage.”

The ads by health nonprofit California Endowment have appeared in the rotunda of the state Capitol, on bus stops across Sacramento and as a 90-by-140-foot mural on a historic Los Angeles hotel.

But not in the Sacramento International Airport, where officials deemed them too controversial.

The endowment’s display case in Terminal B instead contains a piece of black canvas with white lettering: #Health4All.

In a written statement, airport spokeswoman Laurie Slothower said the ads violate a policy which “requires that under no circumstances shall advertising be displayed that would involve the county or the airport in controversial, social, moral, political or ethical issues.” The California Endowment also signed a three-year contract with the airport that explicitly barred political advertising.

But nonprofit leaders say they don’t believe the ads constitute political speech. And now the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has gotten involved in the dispute, asking that airport officials allow the original billboards to appear and arguing that the decision amounts to a violation of constitutional free speech protections.

The ACLU also asked the county this week to provide records detailing how the airport determines an ad is political in nature.

Airports Director John Wheat declined to comment, saying through a spokeswoman that it doesn’t serve “either party’s interest to play this out in the media while we are in the process of responding to the (ACLU’s records) request.”

Endowment Senior Vice President Daniel Zingale said Sacramento airport officials have been the only ones to bar advertisements for the Health4All campaign. The endowment says the campaign “highlights the important contributions of undocumented Californians to our state’s communities and economy, while raising awareness of their lack of access to affordable health care coverage.” The campaign is intended to emphasize that undocumented immigrants also cannot get coverage under the federal health care overhaul.

Zingale acknowledged that the endowment’s contract with the airport, due to expire soon, explicitly barred political advertising. But the endowment did not expect any problems, and the airport ran ads from endowment campaigns prior to Health4All, he said.

He objects to the county’s ad policy, but says even under its guidelines, the Health4All campaign still falls outside its restrictions.

“ ‘Undocumented workers deserve health care,’ to me, is not a political statement,” he said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

In a letter sent to Wheat this week, ACLU attorney Michael Risher also argued that the ads are not political: “They do not mention any political candidate, bill or initiative.”

In an interview, Risher said that no matter how the airport decided that the ads were political, the decision would appear to violate the U.S. and California constitutions. The airport allows commercial advertising of all kinds, and as a public agency, it cannot privilege one type of advertising over another, he said.

Leslie Gielow Jacobs, a professor at McGeorge School of Law and an expert in constitutional law, said the airport may be able to restrict political ads, depending on what its policy says and how it is enforced.

“It’s a complicated area of law,” she said. “In a city park, you would have to allow political ads. It’s an open public venue. An airport is a more limited type of public venue. People are just there to pick up their bags. The airport could possibly decide that political ads are not appropriate, as long as the policy is uniformly enforced.”

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