A new policy by the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority will ban most issue-oriented advertising on its buses, mainly to avert lawsuits and other controversies. The policy, which takes effect April 1, is not unreasonable, but does pose some risks of curtailing useful, even life-saving, information. To accommodate valuable public-service messages, TARTA ought to enforce the new guidelines flexibly.
In general, the policy will keep ads that promote tax levies, political candidates, or viewpoints on other public issues off transit authority buses. The new guidelines continue to permit commercial advertising that promotes a business, product, or service, as well as government advertising that promotes public programs or events or TARTA operations.
Banning issue advertising won’t cost TARTA much. Marketing director Steve Atkinson said it makes up roughly 15 percent of TARTA’s advertising, which brings in about $100,000 a year. Message ads might account for even less than $15,000, because nonprofit groups typically get a reduced advertising rate.
In a policy statement, TARTA said it does not want to offend passengers with controversial political, religious, or other messages. “If passengers are offended, it could affect ridership and revenue adversely,” TARTA said.
A potential loss of riders is not a compelling argument for the new policy. TARTA rarely if ever gets complaints about the content of its advertising.
Even under the old policy, the TARTA general manager could reject ads that were deemed obscene or hateful. Alcohol ads are excluded on TARTA buses because Ohio law prohibits the use of public funds to promote alcohol.
TARTA cites a lawsuit involving the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. In 2011, the authority rejected an advertisement that criticized Israel. A federal judge properly found the authority’s good-taste policy to be vague and unconstitutional. Ann Arbor approved a policy similar to one that TARTA is adopting.
Both TARTA’s and Ann Arbor’s new policies could curtail public debate on important, if controversial, issues, and preclude important messages. An example cited by TARTA general manager James Gee is a case in point.
In 1995, TARTA declined to run an ad offered by the Lucas County Health Department as part of an AIDS awareness campaign that promoted condom use to prevent HIV transmission. The ad depicted a condom. Even under the new policy, TARTA should permit such an ad, which was based on scientific and medical facts.
TARTA will run an antismoking ad from the Ohio Department of Health, Mr. Atkinson said. Fact-based message ads from nongovernment sources will be evaluated case by case, he said.
That’s encouraging. TARTA’s new policy should not be used categorically to reject valuable messages on topical issues, even if they are controversial.