PETA Files Suit Over Short Transit Advertising Rejection

BERLIN — What qualifies as objectionable or in poor taste in advertising is the subject of a federal suit filed this week by an animal rights protection advocate against the Lower Shore’s public transportation system.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) this week filed suit against Shore Transit and the Tri-County Council of the Lower Eastern Shore seeking injunctions after the quasi-government entities denied their application to run advertising with the public transportation system. PETA first applied to run its ads on the Shore Transit buses last year and was denied.

PETA then renewed its application last month, asserting Shore Transit’s denial violated First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech and expression. When Shore Transit and its parent Tri-County Council did not respond, PETA filed suit in U.S. District Court this week asking for preliminary and permanent injunctions against the transit system’s advertising policies.

“PETA’s advertisements, which feature the slogan ‘No One Needs to Kill to Eat,’ advocate the closure of animal slaughterhouses,” the complaint reads. “Shore Transit denied the applications, responding the advertisements were too offensive for its marker and political in nature.”

The complaint asserts Shore Transit’s guidelines for accepting advertising were overreaching and violated First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

“A public records request filed by PETA revealed Shore Transit’s advertising policy prohibits the display of advertisements that are political, controversial, offensive, objectionable or in poor taste,” the complaint reads. “Shore Transit’s advertising policy, and the defendants’ denial of PETA’s proposed advertisements pursuant to that advertising policy, violate PETA’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”

The complaint asserts the transit system’s advertising policies are too subjective.

“The policy’s sweeping prohibitions afford enforcement officials unfettered discretion,” the complaint reads. “They are also incapable of reasoned application, content and viewpoint discriminatory, substantially overbroad and unconstitutionally vague.”

PETA’s complaint filed this week states Shore Transit encourages organizations to advertise, but subjectively denies some potential advertisers over content.

“According to Shore Transit’s website, advertising with Shore Transit is one of the best investments companies make with their advertising dollars,” the complaint reads. “Shore Transit encourages businesses and organizations to print their advertisements on the exterior and interior of their buses, in bus shelters and on trash receptacles. These spaces open the door on a highly visible medium for reaching large audiences of all ages, backgrounds and incomes.”

According to the complaint, PETA requested Tri-County Council records to determine which, if any, other advertisement requests had been denied recently. It was learned the only other set of advertisements denied by Shore Transit under its guidelines were ads for a local medical marijuana company.

In response to an email from its advertising agent regarding the proposed advertisements for medical marijuana, the Shore Transit director responded, “Sorry, but no. We have Federal transportation funding and comply with FTA drug and alcohol testing programs. It would be hypocritical to advertise for marijuana and fire people for using it,” according to the complaint.

In June 2020, PETA sent a demand letter to the Tri-County Council stating the organization’s First Amendment concerns and requested Shore Transit reverse it decision rejecting PETA’s advertisements. In July of this year, PETA again renewed its request to run the proposed advertisements on Shore Transit’s system, but as of the date of the filing of the complaint this week, PETA had not received a response.

The complaint is seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction requiring the defendants to accept the two proposed advertisements from PETA and to run them on the same terms offered to other advertisers on the Shore Transit system. The complaint also seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction prohibiting the enforcement of Shore Transit’s prohibitions against advertisements it deems to be political, offensive, controversial, objectionable, or in poor taste.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.