The Duluth Transit Authority (DTA) is reinstalling bus advertisements paid for by a local political action committee, reversing a prior decision to take down the ads because they were deemed politically controversial.
The transportation agency’s move comes after Duluth BizPac, which supports candidates it considers pro-business, threatened to sue the DTA and City of Duluth in late July, arguing the removal of the ads constituted a First Amendment violation.
BizPac and the DTA reached a settlement that would allow the ads — which question local leadership and highlight issues ahead of November’s municipal elections — to go back up for the month of October.
DTA general manager Phil Pumphrey said though the agency considers the ads “disparaging” and in violation of its advertising policy, it reached an agreement with BizPac “to avoid threatened litigation.”
“The Duluth Transit Authority accepts advertising to help fund the bus service for the citizens of the Twin Ports area,” Pumphrey said. “We do not wish or intend to be in the middle of political debate for accepting advertising.”
The PAC sent out a news release Tuesday saying it was “pleased” to have reached an agreement allowing BizPac to “continue to voice opinions regarding issues facing everyone in our city.”
The colorful graphics, in large block letters, ask one of three questions: Is anyone ever going to fix our streets? Are you tired of our city’s lack of priorities? Can’t find housing to fit your needs?
Back in March, BizPac signed an agreement with the DTA’s third-party advertising contractor to purchase 11 ads on public buses for almost $15,000.
The ad campaign was supposed to run through the end of August, according to the contract. But they were removed near the end of April, when Pumphrey noticed the ads, which he said had not been properly screened.
“They were not reviewed properly for compliance with our policy,” he said, which states the agency will not display ads relating to “issues of public debate on economic, political or social issues.”
When the ads were taken down, Duluth BizPac president Rob Stenberg received notice of the ads’ removal and a refund. After attempting to appeal this decision to no fruition, Stenberg decided to announce his intent to take legal action against the DTA and the City of Duluth.
The City of Duluth provides legal counsel for the DTA but is not involved in the agency’s operations. It did not participate in the settlement. BizPac will repay the cost of the production of the ads.
“The dollar amount is not what’s important to us,” Stenberg said in August. “What’s important to us is getting our voice out there and being heard and being able to speak.”