The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia Oct. 19, alleging that the city’s refusal to allow a billboard advertising criminal justice reform to be placed at Philadelphia International Airport violates the group’s First Amendment rights.

The complaint, which was filed in federal court in Philadelphia by staff attorneys for the ACLU and the group’s Pennsylvania chapter, claims that the city’s rejection of the billboard earlier this year was arbitrary, even though the city has stated that it was rejected because it forbids “issue” and “advocacy” advertising at the airport.

“… There were numerous examples of such advertising in place before and after the NAACP ad was refused,” the lawsuit states. “In fact, the City does not appear to have any written policies, procedures or standards regarding advertising at PHL [the airport], making the city’s approval system ad hoc and unconstitutional.”

The lawsuit states that the advertisement is designed to raise awareness of the large number of Americans incarcerated in its prisons, and the costs related to such incarceration. The suit states that the issue is one of “immense national and local interest.”

The actual billboard reads: “Welcome to America, home to 5% of the world’s people & 25% of the world’s prisoners. Let’s build a better America together.”

Clear Channel Outdoor, which handles advertising for Philadelphia International Airport, is also named as a codefendant in the civil action.

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of violating the free speech rights of the plaintiffs.

“The government cannot pick and choose which speech it deems acceptable and which it does not,” Chris Hansen, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, stated in an ACLU news release announcing the lawsuit. “The fact that the airport accepted some political issue ads but not the NAACP’s shows the arbitrary nature of the city’s unwritten and undefined policy. It is a clear violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against the government favoring some speakers over others.”

The billboard advertisements are part of the NAACP’s public awareness campaign concerning its “Misplaced Priorities” report, which is designed to explore the connection between high incarceration rates and poorly performing schools.

The lawsuit states that the NAACP released its report in April of this year, and planned a “broad public awareness and education campaign” to highlight its findings.

“The purpose of these advertisements is to bring America’s disproportionate reliance on incarceration to the attention of international visitors, as well as to the American public and to local and national politicians,” the lawsuit states.

The complaint states that Philadelphia International Airport was chosen as a site for the billboard both because Philly is one of the cities highlighted in the report, and because of the large number of international and domestic visitors who come through the airport.

“The walls of Philadelphia International Airport are public space, and city officials do not have the right to suppress any group’s viewpoint based on their own beliefs or political considerations,” NAACP General Counsel Kim Keenan said in a statement. “Our First Amendment right to free speech is just as strong as that of the U.S.O., the World Wildlife Federation or any other advocacy group that has graced the walls of the airport.”

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of Unconstitutional Infringement on Freedom of Speech and general violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the defendants’ actions violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments, injunctive relief requiring the city to display the billboard advertisement and “prohibiting the Defendants from refusing any other advertisements for Philadelphia International Airport in the absence of a narrow, objective, definite and constitutional standards regarding the acceptance or refusal of such advertisements,” and compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and other court relief.

No jury trial is being sought.

The federal case number is 2:11-cv-06533-CMR.

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