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Federal judge sides with bus drivers’ union over ad dispute on STA buses

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 9, 2017, 3:41 p.m.

FILE – College-age young people board and disembark from a No. 66 bus at the Jefferson Park and Ride in downtown Spokane Friday, Jan. 20, 2012. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE – College-age young people board and disembark from a No. 66 bus at the Jefferson Park and Ride in downtown Spokane Friday, Jan. 20, 2012. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Transit Authority violated the First Amendment when it refused to allow the union that represents its bus drivers to advertise on ads placed on the STA buses, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Court Judge Justin L. Quackenbush issued a written ruling late last month following a bench trial this summer on the civil suit which was filed earlier this year after the STA refused to display ads from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1015 that read: “Do you drive: Uber? Lyft? Charter Bus? School Bus? You have the Right to Organize! Contact ATU 1015 Today at 509-325-2955.”

The lawsuit argued that the STA 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 court records, attorneys for the STA wrote that unions are not categorically prohibited from advertising on buses, but argued that the ad was rejected because it violated the STA’s policy on a “public issue.”

They wrote that the “ATU would be given the same opportunity as every other business to promote its services in the context of a proposed commercial transaction.”

However, Quackenbush ruled that STA’s decision to prohibit the ads “was an unreasonable interpretation” of its own policies and that the ads qualified as commercial and promotional advertising.

“Based on all of the forgoing findings of fact and conclusions if law, the court finds STA violated ATU’s First Amendment rights by rejecting the proposed advertisement,” Quackenbush wrote. “In the event STA continues its advertising program, STA shall not reject this proposed advertisement.”

Thomas Leighty, president of the union, praised Quackenbush’s opinion.

“This is a big victory for STA transit workers and all workers’ free speech rights,” Leighty said in a news release. “STA was attempting to trample our First Amendment right to let workers at Uber, Lyft, charter bus and school bus companies know they have a right to a voice that will protect their interests on the job.”

STA attorney John Drake directed inquiries to the STA. In a prepared statement, STA CEO Susan Meyer indicated that the agency is exploring further legal options.

“We are pleased the court affirmed that STA did not exercise viewpoint discrimination or an anti-union sentiment,” Meyer wrote. “However, we respectfully disagree with the court’s opinion and we are in the process of evaluating next steps.”

The legal dispute dates back to August of 2016 when the union proposed the ad to STA’s former advertising contractor, Ooh Media LLC.

Ooh Media rejected a mockup of the ad because company officials ruled that 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 court records.

But Quackenbush ruled that the STA and its attorneys improperly categorized the ad.

As a result of the ruling, the union plans to follow through with it’s original plan, Leighty said.

“We plan to run this advertisement to let these transportation workers know ATU is here for them,” Leighty said.

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