Candidate sues after bus ad refused

Friday, September 25, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hamilton County Commission candidate Marilyn Hyland has sued SORTA in federal court for refusing to run "controversial" political ads on the sides of Metro buses.

SORTA -- the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority -- said it would be happy to run the ads if Ms. Hyland would remove her position statements. They are: Broadway Commons for a Reds stadium, local dollars for local jobs, building a commuter rail, and an end to Ohio's E-check tailpipe emissions testing for most cars and light trucks.

"We feel buses are places for people to go back and forth to work or school," said SORTA spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers. "We don't want to subject them to issues that are controversial for one side or the other."

Cincinnati City Councilman Todd Portune said he will challenge the bus agency's decision next week at council, which provides funding for SORTA.

Ms. Hyland called SORTA's position "ludicrous. When you're going to vote for someone, you need to know what they stand for."

The Hyland campaign filed suit in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati on Thursday. The suit seeks a temporary restraining order to stop SORTA from blocking the ads, said lawyer Scott Greenwood, who is representing Ms. Hyland's campaign.

Allowing candidates to show just faces and names on bus banners is akin to advertising that is "a clash of corporate logos," Mr. Greenwood said. "It really is like Nike versus Adidas. Do you like the swoosh or that flower thing?"

Just a year ago, U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott ordered SORTA to accept a labor union advertisement that it had rejected as too controversial. SORTA has appealed the ruling.

The loss should have taught the bus agency that it can't censor ads, Mr. Portune said.

"It stretches the imagination that political advertising is going to impact their ridership," he said. "They're entering into an area that they have no business entering into."

Ms. Hilvers argued that Judge Dlott's decision also included an affirmation: The judge ruled that SORTA's ad policy meets constitutional standards and that space on the outside of SORTA buses is not a public forum where anyone with the money can say anything.

In the case of the union ad, the judge objected on the basis that the agency had exercised its policy unreasonably.

The policy says that SORTA reserves the right to refuse "advertising of controversial public issues that may adversely affect SORTA's ability to attract and maintain ridership."

Both the Broadway Commons and E-check references fall into that category, Ms. Hilvers said.

"The candidates have ample opportunity to air their issues elsewhere," she said.

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