FORT WAYNE, Ind. — A federal appeals court has ruled that it was wrong for a public transportation company to refuse to allow a health care referral service to place advertising cards in its buses because of its pro-life stance.
As previously reported, Women’s Health Link, a free referral service that assists women needing physical, emotional, mental or spiritual health care, sought last fall to place advertising cards in Fort Wayne buses that simply stated, “You are not alone: Free resource for women seeking health care.”
However, the transportation company Citilink reportedly denied Women’s Health Link’s request twice because of its affiliation with Allen County Right to Life, and because the organization’s website discussed what it classified as “controversial issues,” presumably abortion.
“We feel that this ad does not educate the general public or raise awareness regarding a significant social issue in a viewpoint neutral manner,” Citilink’s response to Women’s Health Link stated. “We do not choose to post this ad as a PSA.”
Officials also explained that the organization’s connection to Allen County Right to life was “problematic because Right to Life has a particular preference as to how to deal with women’s health care needs, i.e., it promotes life-affirming alternatives to abortion.”
The matter soon went to court, and in January, U.S. District Judge Robert Miller Jr., nominated to the bench by then-President Ronald Reagan, granted summary judgment to Citilink, finding no wrongdoing on the part of the public transportation system.
“The undisputed evidence shows that [Citilink’s representative] rejected Women’s Health Link’s first submission because its advertisement was noncommercial, and rejected its second (the public service ad) because she read the ‘life affirming’ reference on the website as advocating a position or opinion on abortion–a political, religious and moral issue that the advertising policy expressly precluded,” he declared.
Miller stated that the rejection was also fair as no evidence was presented that Citilink had ever allowed advertising from pro-abortion groups either.
But the ruling was appealed, and this week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Miller’s decision, opining that Citilink’s “refusal to allow Health Link’s ad to be displayed is an unjustifiable, arbitrary and discriminatory restriction of free speech.” It found that the only reason the advertisement was rejected was because Women’s Health Link is pro-life—but that the public would not know the group’s position simply by seeing the cards.
“[The advertisement] is a public service announcement that does not so much as hint at advocating or endorsing any political, moral, or religious position,” wrote Judge Richard Posner, also nominated by then-President Ronald Reagan, on behalf of the panel. “Even if one goes behind the ad to the organization’s website, one must go to the mission statement and the ‘Diaper Project’ pages for an indication of a pro-life position.”
“Yet the district judge granted summary judgment in favor of Citilink. He shouldn’t have,” he wrote.
The court noted that Citlink allows other groups such as the United Way to promote vaccinations and health care.
“What is important is not what other advertisers are permitted to do but that Citilink’s ad censorship policy is limited to ad content,” Posner wrote. “Citilink’s refusal to post the ad was groundless discrimination against constitutionally protected speech.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented Women’s Health Link in court, applauded the decision.
“A government shouldn’t be censoring ads from a group like Women’s Health Link when it is running nearly identical ads from other groups, such as The United Way,” said Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “The Seventh Circuit’s decision rightly understands that the First Amendment protects freedom of speech for all people, regardless of their political, moral, or religious views.”
“The city of Fort Wayne’s bus system has a responsibility, like all other government entities, to ensure equal access to community advertising forums that it creates,” he stated.