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Santa Monica OKs Nonprofit Ads On Big Blue Buses

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Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Hector Gonzalez
Special to The Lookout

February 18, 2016 -- Nonprofits trying to get their causes to wider audiences now have a new forum to do so on the sides of Santa Monica's Big Blue Buses, ending a 15-year ban.

City Council members unanimously approved allowing noncommercial ads on buses after hearing from about 10 citizens mostly in support of the change. They were also bolstered in their decision by new court rulings giving Santa Monica more legal leeway to revise the policy adopted in 2000.

“It appears to me that what has happened is that a court has been kind enough to give us some clarification that now allows us to amend our advertising policy to be more in keeping with the values people have told us should be our values,” said City Council member Kevin McKeown, who made the motion to adopt the policy change at the panel's Feb. 9 meeting.

Santa Monica's old bus ad policy had worked well financially, generating $2 million a year for the BBB line from commercial advertisements. About 90 percent of the revenue comes from ads for movies, TV, shows and hospitals and other health-care providers, said a staff report.

Amending the policy to allow ads from nonprofits could increase competition among advertisers for ad space on BBB buses, which in turn could eventually generate more income for the system, the report said.

The revision does not change the City's prohibition on political ads, sexually explicit ads, violent ads, ads for guns, alcohol and tobacco, for adult films and services and false and misleading ads.

The issue last came before the council three years ago, when then-Council member Richard Bloom, now a state senator, asked the council to reconsider the sweeping ad policy, which banned even nonprofit groups like AIDS Walk Los Angeles from promoting their events on the Big Blue Buses.

AIDS Walk LA had briefly advertized on BBB buses before the City cracked down and reaffirmed the ban in 2012. The organization then sued the City, which settled out of court in 2012, paying an undisclosed amount to AIDs Walk LA but keeping the old policy intact, according to staff's report.

Voting down Bloom's proposal 4 to 3, Council members in 2012 were concerned that allowing non-commercial ads could open the floodgate to political advertisements.

Up until last year, courts had ruled that city and county buses are “non-public forums,” unlike parks or city streets where courts have been aggressive in backing those areas as forums for freedom of speech.

Governments have a right to regulate and even ban bus ads that could be deemed too politically extreme or potentially disruptive to their bus systems.

Since then, an appeals court in 2015 upheld King County's transit service's policy which allows noncommercial ads but also prohibits political ads.

Santa Monica's policy follows King County's on bus ads.

“We're so pleased that the council has decided to revisit this issue,” said Phil Curtis, director of government affairs for Aids Project Los Angeles, during public comments. “This model would allow APLA to educate a broader audience in Santa Monica regarding the programs and services we provide.”

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