Bus-ted: Transit policy blocks Harrington ad

As Charlotte Ding drove behind a public bus in Rochester, New York, an advertisement on the back of the vehicle pleading for help with an unsolved murder grabbed the former Charlottesville resident's attention– and sparked a brainstorm.

"I thought it would be a great way to draw attention to the Morgan Harrington case in Charlottesville," says Ding, who relocated to New York last year but still volunteers for the Harrington family's nonprofit ad campaign Help Save the Next Girl. Excited at the prospect of raising awareness about the mystery around the second anniversary of the discovery of Morgan's remains on January 26, Ding contacted Charlottesville Area Transit in late January ready to make a bus-side ad purchase. She didn't get far.

"I was told the ad wouldn't be accepted," says Ding, noting that the charity had been prepared to pay full price– about $250 per ad per month. "I couldn't believe it," says Ding. "Why wouldn't they want the money?"

"We only accept ads from commercial businesses," explains Transit marketing director Kristen Gleason, who says the no-nonprofit ad policy has been in place for years, prior to her 2008 assumption of that position.

Why wouldn't agencies like the Red Cross or the United Way be able to advertise on Charlottesville buses when they're welcomed on buses in many other Virginia localities?

"It's a clean policy to make sure the city doesn't get in any trouble," says Charlottesville Deputy City Attorney Richard Harris, who notes that the policy– which Harris says was implemented a couple of years before his own 2004 hiring– reflects the city's desire to avoid legal woes that could arise if buses carried controversial messages, particularly of a religious or political nature. Since the First Amendment prohibits restricting speech based on content, he says, every nonprofit was banned from buses.

That's not the approach taken in Rochester, New York, where Ding saw the ad that inspired her.

"The spots that we wouldn't run would be considered offensive to our riders and the general public," says Shelly Dinan, spokesperson for the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority. Political and religious ads are allowed, Dinan says, assuming the messages meet decency standards, and she says there have been no problems during her 18 months on the job.

In some other Virginia markets, religious and political ads are banned, but other nonprofits are welcome to advertise on buses, says Tim Brazil of Media Transit, the outsource agency that sells bus ads in areas including Richmond, Lynchburg, and Harrisonburg. In fact, says Brazil, nonprofits are encouraged to advertise on buses through an offer that gives them twice the space for the price of one ad.

"It's frustrating when you're promoting a cause that helps people," says Kim Connolly, United Way Thomas Jefferson Area spokesperson, noting that bus ads are affordable and reach a wide range of people. Still, Connolly adds, "I understand why they have the policy."

Not everyone is sympathetic to the City's method of avoiding a possible First Amendment controversy.

"This is really something out of the theater of the absurd," says city resident Kevin Cox, pointing out the city government's support of the First Amendment monument in front of City Hall, a chalkboard that frequently features controversial– even offensive– messages as well as crude images of nudity and sex acts.

Unlike the monument, Cox notes, ads on buses are a source of revenue– something the city claims to be short of just now.

"The city is scrambling to find money for the schools, and here they are rejecting money from people willing to pay it?" Cox asks.

Transit head Bill Watterson, however, notes that bus ads are unlikely to solve any major fiscal gaps. With revenue of just $97,000 last year, ad sales accounted for less than two percent of CAT's $6 million operating budget; and, he adds that the city's early 2000's decision to bring ad sales in-house has saved CAT the 25 percent commission it had been paying an outside agency.

Still, Watterson concedes that only 62 of the 70 available slots are currently occupied by ads for paying businesses. Charlotte Ding wishes a picture of Morgan Harrington, the sketch of her unidentified killer, and the tip line phone number could fill a few– and catch a killer.

"Now is the perfect time to run the sketch face," says Ding, who contends that public transportation is an ideal vehicle for spreading a message about an unsolved crime. "The buses," she says, "go everywhere in the city."


Great the Council will vote against federal foreign policy so that they can be used for Iranain propoganda in Iranian newpapers and on Iranian TV but they want to squelch anyone elses opinion from being heard.

why don't they just find a local business that's willing to sponsor an ad on the buses? that way they get around the non-profit prohibition and the business will get some good press for trying to help catch the killer.

Why is it business interests are now now top-tier everywhere we look? Even on *public* transportation?

its the typical overhypedville rhetoric of open mindedness, unless you arent like us. dont forget how we just decided whole foods customers are more important than kmart or golds and moved the traffic light to cater for the yoga mat soy latte crowd.

I'm on the city's side on this one.

Nice solution Mighty Horse.

Peter. The changes to the traffic patterns there have been in place 15-20 yrs. Try some yoga it help ease the cynical mind.

A bus seems the right size to post the sad lessons learned that might help save the next girl. Don't drink or do drugs. And if you do, don't get so messed up that you walk away from your friends and try to find a ride home with strangers. And never, ever hitch hike.

"The changes to the traffic patterns there have been in place 15-20 yrs." No it hasn't. Moving the light changed the pattern. Try some yoga Thomasville.
Kevin Cox complained when they stopped advertising on the sides of buses and they brought that back. Maybe his complaint this time will help change the ridiculous policy as illuminated by MightyHorse.
Bill Watterson, when the City decide that $97k was an insignificant amount of money? Is saying that it can be thrown away as Council frequently does? It is a tell-tale sign of how City Hall actually thinks about money.

The intent of the ban on advertising by non-profits is to regulate content. It is a violation of the spirit of the First Amendment if not the letter of the law.

The intent is to CENSOR content by banning specific advertisers.

of course, we'd probably be having the opposite discussion if CAT did allow non-profits to advertise and we ended up with a Westboro Baptist Church slogan on the sides of our buses.

My guess is that it's fear of the Right to Life movement that is the source of this censorship policy.The city can still limit and control content.This is a very ham fisted attempt at control.

This happened last year but when there was a minor crime around the Belmont Park (I think it was a window being broken). A wanted reward poster about it was stuck up at the bus stop at Belmont park-- like we would be the people to know about it, at least that is the way I took it.

Funny to see C'ville's self-appointed censor decrying censorship.

You are wrong and misrepresent my position. I am not a censor and I do not rtepresent the government. You do understand the First Amendment, right? I cleaned off the engravings of the First Amendment and the quote from Thurgood Marshall so people could read the quotes. The Hook accurately represented my complaint with the "monument." Please read the articles.

Kevin Cox

Is this really that big of a deal? So the City said "no". It's a good idea, find somewhere else to put the ad. CAT isn't the only means of avertising in this City. The policy may not be perfect, but seriously, choose your battles.

And for what it's worth, I think there's been plenty of awareness about MH around Charlottesville. If someone knew the killer, they have spoken up already.

I'm mistaken in finding your behavior to be funny? Now you want to control that too? I've read the articles and nowhere I have seen or made a claim that you represent the government. If you had been appointed as censor by the government, rather than attempt to assume that function for yourself then I would not have described you as "self-appointed."

I overlooked my address to Mr. Cox in my last comment. Sorry if it wasn't clear to whom I was responding.

I have never removed anything from the "monument" because of the content. What I did remove was obscuring the engravings of the First Amendment and Thurgood's Marshall's quote.
I would be happy to see a monument erected that really did acheive the goals set for it by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. The chalkboard is a failure and ugly too.But it sure is FUN!
I have zero desire to control you or what you say.
Kevin Cox

It makes no sense to claim the the monument has not achieved the goals set for it by The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression when it quite obviously has. Those goals are laid out here: http://www.tjcenter.org/monument/ Here's a brief excerpt: "Individuals use the chalkboard to express ideas both political and whimsical, to respond to ideas already on the wall, to convey messages to members of city government, and to create temporary works of art." By the way, I couldn't find any goal listed of preventing either Justice Marshall's words or those of the First Amendment from being covered in chalk.

Are the Super Pacs non profit? Keep the political ads off the buses (not that I've seen any on them). A Romney super pac is probably more likely to advertise on the private planes or taxis at the airport but I could see Obama's smiling face with remember Romney quote of "I don't care about the poor" taken out of context (on the side of the bus) directed at us.

I think you are right about this being a form of backdoor censorship, K. Cox, but I don't think it's the "Right To Life" (anti-choice) crowd as much as incurring the wrath of the likes of Jim Inhofe when someone like NORML or the Marijuana Policy Project buys ads on public transit. Inhofe stripped DC Metro of funding when they accepted ads by these non-profit advocacy groups; I don't believe the City could run the transit system without Federal dollars.

I hasten to add: it's not like any left-wing pro-choice Senators or Congressmen will threaten to stifle RTL advertising - that type of censorship is, in practice, unique to the Right Wing - despite the loud bleating of Right Wingers on here.

After a certain point --- and we need to look in the rearview mirror for that --- it is simpler & cheaper to implement these sorts of policies. All it would take is one well-funded but rejected non-profit to take the CAT to court to wipe out that $97,000 of revenue with legal fees.

Seriously, look around you: our local panhandlers are appealing the ruling re the restrictions enacted to keep them from bothering people who are eating or crossing a road while on the downtown mall. How much is that defense costing us? No, given the litigious environment we all find ourselves in, this policy saves us money.

It's good that Cville has this clean, all or nothing policy because this town is full of crazy people. It really is. The citizens of this region (I'm lookin' at you too, Albamarle-ians....) take self righteous indignation to a whole new level, as well as making "being offended about something, anything, pick a random subject!" their 24/7 hobby. Having something perpetually up a butt is unfortunately the norm for the humorless, uptight residents of this region. Guaranteed, you allow ads to go up on buses and that would be it, it would be open season for people to start being offended, taking sides, blowing up the phones of City Hall, storming the Council meetings with lame-o, impassioned, badly recited speeches during "Matters by the Public" and writing "I'm so offended!" op ed pieces for local media outlets. A few apples (actually, make that MANY bad apples....) had to spoil it for everybody else around here.

* Clarification - "all or nothing policy regarding non-commercial/private campaigns and causes advertisements." I realize that only corporate product ads can go up on buses, though I wouldn't be surprised if eventually one of those offended the so-called sensibilities of a Cvillian or Albemarle-ian. :D

PSA Lover February 1st, 2012 | 8:14pm

Very well stated!

MightyHorse February 2nd, 2012 | 9:27am

of course, we'd probably be having the opposite discussion if CAT did allow non-profits to advertise and we ended up with a Westboro Baptist Church slogan on the sides of our buses.

This is priceless! Bravo ! The irony!

Bill of Rights are RIGHTS not privileges. Hint "paid for" fees.
No one has right to drive, it is a privilege.

How about the stages of grieving ? That's a message that some are in denial over. Denial and PR get you no where. Want to help, take some responsibility before asking others to help.

I love any mention of my favorite Charlottesville resident, Kevin Cox. I think his commitment to cleaning off Marshall's quote so others may view it and absorb the knowledge is admirable. He doesn't get paid to do that. He has nothing to personally gain for keeping it clean other than the knowledge that he is helping others be exposed to that great quote.

Plus, Kevin, that picture THE HOOK posted of you with that toilet brush was great. It made me chuckle a bit, and it made my day when I saw it. I think of it often oddly enough. Keep it up! The world needs more people like Kevin Cox in it!

No message on the bus, but you can live in Lee park. That makes sense. ;-)

I don't know that you avoid a first amendment problem by banning all nonprofits--then you're preferencing for-profit and limiting non-for-profit speech. It's all speech -- how can you preference commercial speech while limiting religious, political, or community-service oriented content?

This is kinda like the flyers that used to be sent home with Albemarle schoolkids. Nonprofit and religious groups sent flyers w/kids all the time--no one complained, it was useful information. Then, an atheist group sent a flyer home with kids--ACK!!! all hell breaks loose (funny how it's always the religious that break loose with the hell) --and now, no one can send flyers home. I wonder how all the Vacation Bible Schools that can no longer send flyers home with kids feel about what their silly whining parishioners accomplished?

Yeah, I'm really glad I'm protected from reading messages from United Way while I'm stuck in traffic. Of course, they (and Westboro Baptist) can still buy space on a billboard. If someone wants to offend me with their speech, they still have plenty of opportunity to do so, CATS be damned. So they're silly to lose out on paying customers--imho.

Informed C'ville Citizen, agreed. There have been boundless opportunities and a $150k reward for someone to come forward with an I.D. He's obviously not from around there. (Not to worry -- they're planning a return trip to the Fairfax rape locale to see if they can find anyone from 7 years ago who might recall the fellow -- but he's probably not from there, either.)

Guess city council, like SGK wants to be sure Planned Parenthood doesn't buy ads? Wow, heaven forbid we try to reach women who must take the bus and inform them that they could obtain free/low cost health care and birth control, right?

Before one of those insane protesters who has been outside our local PP comments - 97% of funding is not abortion related. Though thank you for your visiblity, you reminded me to go in and make a donation!

If you did start putting ads up to solve the City's crimes then Legal Aid would say they have to have a spot...

Just as an aside. The Hook should check out the Schillingshow Blog post. Interesting read about how poorly the bus drivers are treated. Judging by the way the trolley's and all of the CAT buses are bandaided, seems like any additional revenue would be welcome. Then maybe the drivers could be treated like humans, and the brakes could be fixed so they didn';t scream all over town.