Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Montgomery County Government Censors Ads Opposing Question B // ACLU Demands Equal Access for Both Sides

UPDATE: Patrick Lacefield, a spokesperson for Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, has responded to the ACLU's press release and provides new details. The Leggett administration will allow the FOP to run bus ads, but rejects the idea that they were engaging in viewpoint discrimination:
MONTGOMERY COUNTY: The County Executive decided yesterday to make an one-time, specific exception to the County's policy against any outside political advertising to allow the FOP to purchase space. Our standing policy is not viewpoint-based and therefore there is no issue of "censorship." Prior to this exception, the County would not have sold space to outside Pro-Question B advocates either. That has been a consistent policy that the ACLU has never agreed with.

A letter is being prepared by the County Attorney. We had told the ACLU we'd have a response before Thursday but they jumped the gun with a release. The ACLU acknowledges that the County can establish rules governing access to forum in this case (Ride-On buses), including content-based rules, so long as there is no viewpoint discrimination. The County’s rules governing access to advertising space are straightforward: the County, through its contractor, accepts commercial advertising and government-sponsored speech. Those are the only two categories of speech permissible in buses advertisements. There is no viewpoint discrimination within those two categories. The FOP’s proposed advertisement does not fall within either of the permissible categories. It is not commercial speech and it is not government-sponsored speech. Thus, the County properly rejected the proposed advertisement.

If recent accounts by the ACLU are accurate, Montgomery County may have gone too far in its attempts to repeal "effects bargaining" rights (Question B) for members of the county's police union (FOP Lodge 35). Maryland Juice previously reported on Montgomery County's aggressive advertising blitz urging a "vote for" Question B. Their PR offensive included web videos, flyers, email blasts, and more. The FOP called for an investigation of "misuse of taxpayer funds," but some argued that the law permits the County expend resources on advocacy for referenda.


MONTGOMERY COUNTY GOVERNMENT CENSORS POLITICAL OPPOSITION: Today, the ACLU is announcing that the Montgomery County Government is also running "FOR Question B" ads on its buses. But what caught their interest is that MoCo is simultaneously censoring ads from those who are opposing the government's position. Maryland Juice has previously noted a fondness for censorship from the Montgomery County government. Our #1 most-read article of all-time is still our reporting on MoCo's censorship of their employees' Internet searches. See the alarming report from the ACLU below:


ACLU Protests Censorship of Political Speech by
Montgomery County Government

Full details at the ACLU of Maryland website: http://www.aclu-md.org/press_room/82

TAKOMA PARK – Concerned that Montgomery County government is unlawfully censoring ads opposing the “FOR Question B” ads that the County itself is running on public transit buses, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland (ACLU) today contacted Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett detailing the constitutional violation inherent in this viewpoint discrimination by the government. The ACLU asked for a quick resolution to the matter, given that the political question at issue will be decided by voters on November 6.

“If the County wants to prohibit political advertising on county buses, it can, but it cannot run its own political ads on county buses and then claim that political advertising is not permitted,” said David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. “When the government privileges one side of a political debate in a forum open to private speakers, as Montgomery County is doing here, it engages in viewpoint discrimination clearly prohibited by the First Amendment.”

The ACLU’s letter concerns actions taken by or on behalf of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, Division of Transit Services, in connection with ads that the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 35 (FOP) sought to place on Ride On buses concerning the referendum on Question B on November 6. Montgomery County is currently running its own ads on both the inside and outside of county Ride On buses stating “Who Do You Think Should Run the County Police?  The Police Chief or Union Leaders?  Vote FOR Question B.”  Wishing to respond to these explicitly political ads by the County, the FOP contacted the contractor responsible for managing the advertising program for the Division of Transit services, seeking to run its own responsive ads. Once the content of the FOP’s intended ad became clear, the FOP was told, on two different occasions, that because the ad FOP wished to run was political in nature, they would not be allowed to purchase the space. 

The ACLU letter argues that the County cannot impose advertising rules only on private speakers who wish to express a contrary viewpoint. Because the County ran its own ads with respect to Question B, it must now allow the FOP to speak on the same issue, on the same terms as are available to other private speakers.

Go to the ACLU of Maryland website for more details: http://www.aclu-md.org/press_room/82. The ACLU has not taken a position on the substance of Question B.


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