School districts wade into legalities with commercial advertisements on websites
Some Western Pennsylvania school districts — and any other governmental bodies that allow commercial advertisements on their websites — could open the door to First Amendment issues if they allow some cause- or organization-based advertisements and not others, legal experts warn.
Adoption Connection PA, a Christian adoption agency in Beaver County, is running ads on dozens of local school district websites through a company called EDGEclick. A division of Thought Process Enterprises, EDGEclick specializes in soliciting and placing banner ads on public school websites and represents nearly 30 school districts in Allegheny, Beaver and Butler counties.
While the districts running the advertisement have had school officials sign off on it, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union said the ad could open the door to legal issues should the officials choose not to run ads from other nonprofits or groups that represent a specific cause.
“They’ve basically created a forum for paid speech, and that could make it difficult for them to reject advertising,” said Sara Rose, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “I think they’d be hard-pressed to not run an ad for, say, Planned Parenthood, for example,” she said.
Rose said this would not apply to private companies because, unlike government agencies, private companies are not subject to First Amendment restrictions.
Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz agreed: “The two issues here are content discrimination and viewpoint discrimination.”
Government agencies are permitted to engage in some amount of content discrimination, such as rules that do not permit political advertising that are applicable to Republican and Democratic politics, he said.
That said, “If you’re going to run ads for political causes, you can’t pick among them. That’s viewpoint discrimination,” Ledewitz said.
But Bob Phillips, director of web operations at Thought Process, said the ad does not violate his company’s guidelines prohibiting such content, which state: “… content related to political candidates, organizations or initiatives, controversial issues such as abortion rights, religion, alternative lifestyles and other ‘hot button’ issues will NOT be accepted.”
Phillips said, “Although the agency is Christian, the advertisement itself is not. Planned Parenthood, that ad would then fall under political or controversial. To be frank, adoption is not a political or controversial topic.”
Seneca Valley School District was the first in the area to employ EDGEclick and place ads on its website. Banner ads and square ads for Adoption Connections PA appear on the school district’s site.
Linda Andreassi, spokeswoman for the district, said administrators must approve any advertisement arranged through EDGEclick before it appears on the website.
“It’s part of the contract language,” she said. “We made it clear to them prior to them even soliciting advertisers that we would not be putting any inappropriate ads on our site.”
District officials approved the adoption agency’s advertisement, she said.
Broward County Public School District in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has allowed advertising on its school websites and property for several years. Guidelines on its site prohibit religious content that violates school policy, political agendas, messages about contraception, sex education and “hot-button” issues, among other things.
Debbie Popkin of School Website Solutions, which hosts the Florida district’s site, said an issue like the EDGEclick adoption ad has never come up there.
“It’s never even been asked,” she said.
Rose compared the situation with an ACLU lawsuit started in 2006 in which the organization attempted to buy advertising space on Port Authority of Allegheny County buses. The advertisements were designed to educate people about the right of people convicted of felonies to vote. The Port Authority refused the ads, claiming it did not run noncommercial advertising on its public buses.
“What ads have to be run depends on what they have run in the past,” Rose said. “If they basically run anything that comes their way without any standards, they basically have to run any ad that comes their way. They can’t discriminate based on topic.”
The ACLU eventually showed that the Port Authority had run noncommercial advertisements in the past, and District Judge Terrence McVerry ordered the authority to run the ACLU’s ads.
Ledewitz said that if a dispute over the adoption ad were brought to court, it could hinge on a judge’s interpretation.
“It’s a question of perception,” he said. “If a judge looks at it and says, ‘It’s for adoption and not talking about how the kids got there to be adopted,’ it’s irrelevant. If he decides it’s saying, ‘In the face of unwanted pregnancy … ,’ the school is completely opened up to running all kinds of advertising.”
Megan Guza is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-779-6902 or [email protected].