The proposed bus advertisement is simple enough.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1015 asks, “Do you drive for Uber, Lyft, charter bus, school bus? You have a right to organize.” The ad includes the local union’s phone number.
ATU wants to plaster the ad across Spokane Transit Authority buses. STA, the drivers’ employer, has rejected the request.
The result: a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by the union against STA. A bench trial is set for June 27 before Senior U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush.
The union is seeking an order requiring STA to allow bus ads that “promote the availability of union services or that contain public service announcements.”
“They have a right to free speech,” said Steven Crumb, the union’s attorney.
The lawsuit argues that STA has rejected the union ad “simply because it is a union. The content restrictions imposed by the defendants under color of state law are unreasonable in light of the purpose served by the forum … and are therefore unconstitutional…”
The dispute dates back nearly a year when the union proposed an ad to STA’s former advertising contractor, ooh Media.
Ooh Media rejected a mockup of the ad because it did not conform with STA’s policy of limiting ads to commercial and promotional messages.
A month later, STA terminated ooh Media’s contract for what it said were repeated failures to comply with the contract. STA has not replaced the contractor and is not accepting new bus ads, according to documents filed in the lawsuit by STA’s outside attorney.
Thus, STA never actually rejected the ad, the agency argues.
Susan Meyer, CEO at STA, declined to elaborate on the dispute, and would only say by email that the proposed ad violated STA’s advertising policy limiting ads to commercial or promotional purposes.
In lawsuit filings, STA said unions are not categorically prohibited from advertising on buses and that “ATU would be given the same opportunity as every other business to promote its services in the context of a proposed commercial transaction.”
STA also said that because there is no advertising contractor in place, it is neither accepting nor rejecting bus ads. Thus, the lawsuit is ill-timed, it said.
Among the types of ad messages prohibited by the STA policy, there is one addressing public issues.
The policy prohibits “advertising expressing or advocating an opinion, position or viewpoint on matters of public debate about economic, political, religious or social issues.”
The union argues that the policy constitutes an unlawful viewpoint-based restriction on speech in a public forum by allowing the promotion of charitable, religious and educational public services while prohibiting the promotion of labor-related public services.
Crumb said the termination of the ooh Media contract “is kind of a funny coincidence.”
“We are not altering the policy. We think we are within the policy,” Crum said.
The ATU argues that STA has previously allowed union advertising in 2010 and 2016 by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1439.
The UFCW ad in 2016 was removed from buses, and the union was told the removal was “because it was a union,” according to ATU’s lawsuit.
ATU joined a regional council of unions and posted a bus ad promoting unions in 2010, the lawsuit said.