The New York Civil Liberties Union today sued Suffolk County for records regarding advertisements placed on county buses after a local LGBT rights group’s attempt to place a bus advertisement expressing support for same-sex marriage was rejected.
On May 21, the county rejected a bus ad proposed by the Long Island LGBT Coalition stating “Support Marriage Equality / Everybody should be able to marry the one they love / Call your state senator.” Explaining the denial in a newspaper article, County Attorney Christine Malafi said the county has a long-standing policy of not accepting political ads on its buses.
While the county rejected the LGBT group’s political ad, it previously accepted an ad from Birthright, an anti-abortion group. The NYCLU made multiple attempts to obtain Suffolk’s policy regarding advertisement guidelines as well as records of what ads have been accepted and rejected in the past, including filing a formal freedom of information request for the records in June. The County has thus far refused to turn over the records.
“The county can’t favor one group’s message over another’s,” said Andrea Callan, director of the NYCLU’s Suffolk County Chapter. “If it’s going to prohibit ads with political messages from being displayed on its buses, then it must reject all such ads.”
The LGBT group spent $6,000 to produce the rejected ad. In a press report, a representative from Gateway Outdoor Advertising, which coordinates advertising on county buses, said he’d never before had the county deny an ad.
In a May 28 telephone conversation with an NYCLU attorney, Malafi implied that she had not seen the Birthright ad until it was already posted on county buses. She distinguished the two ads by stating that the Birthright’s does not include the term “abortion” while the LGBT group’s ad contained the word “marriage.”
“The county is treading in murky First Amendment waters if it is rejects paid bus advertisements based on the presence or absence of specific words,” Callan said. “We need to learn more about county’s policies and practices in this area to try to understand why it rejected the LGBT Coalition’s ad.”
The NYCLU’s lawsuit seeks documents related to Suffolk’s policies for non-county entities seeking to advertise on county buses, operating procedures regarding advertising on county property, and records of all ads the county has accepted or denied since May 1, 2007.
Lawyers on the case are NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney and Upstate Litigation Coordinator Corey Stoughton, Staff Attorney Matt Faiella and Kaufman Fellow Andrew Kalloch.