Court Rules Against Local Government in Free Speech Case

The Oregon Court of Appeals recently ruled against TriMet in a case concerning advertising on its buses and light rail cars.  TriMet provides public transportation in the Portland, Oregon metro area.  Consistent with previous decisions, this case makes it more difficult for local government to regulate expression in Oregon. In Karuk Tribe of California v. TriMet, __ Or App __ (March 16, 2011), TriMet denied the Tribe’s offer to pay for advertising space on the side of TriMet’s buses and light rail vehicles.  The proposed ad depicted three salmon swimming in a stream facing a wall of electrical sockets and said “Salmon should not be running up your electrical bill, [t]hey should run up the Klamath River.”  TriMet denied the ad based on its policy prohibiting any of its Property to become a public forum for discussion of political issues.  It essentially argued to the court that it was operating in a proprietary capacity when it denied the ad, and that it should be permitted to control the content of advertisements in that capacity.

The court rejected TriMet’s argument.  It relied on a long line of existing case law to rule that TriMet could not reject advertisements on the basis of their content.  As a side note, the decision could impact local governments’ ability to regulate content on social media pages they may create to communicate with constituents.  We expect the decision will be appealed and we will continue to watch the case closely.