Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Salisbury agency violated free speech by declining PETA’s ads, group alleges

The Salisbury area transit agency violated an animal rights group’s constitutional right to free speech by rejecting its request to post “Close the slaughterhouses” signs on public buses because they were political and would upset residents of the lower Eastern Shore, home to many poultry plants, the group alleged in a lawsuit filed last week.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is seeking a federal court order requiring Shore Transit to post the signs, saying the First Amendment bars the governmental agency from refusing to display messages with which it disagrees.

In its lawsuit, PETA stated that Shore Transit has created a public forum for messages by allowing advertisements on its buses and thus cannot discriminate against the viewpoint the rights group seeks to express.

PETA’s controversial signs state, “No One Needs to Kill to Eat. Close the slaughterhouses: Save the workers, their families, and the animals.”

One of the signs contains a photo of a young girl holding a chicken; another has the word “kill” superimposed over a bloody butcher’s knife.

“Committed to fighting animal exploitation and asserting animals’ rights to have humans consider their best interests and to be free from suffering, PETA advocates against the pain caused to animals in laboratories, in the food industry, in the clothing trade, and in the entertainment industry, as well as in other contexts,” PETA’s attorneys, Brian M. Hauss and Robin R. Cockey, stated in papers filed at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

“Advertising is one of the major ways in which PETA carries out its advocacy campaigns, including on public transit systems,” added Hauss, of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Cockey, of Cockey, Brennan & Maloney PC in Salisbury. “The (Shore Transit) advertisements were intended to advocate the closure of the slaughterhouses on the Eastern Shore and to encourage viewers not to purchase or eat animal food products.”

Brad Bellacicco, Shore Transit’s director, did not immediately return a message Monday seeking comment on PETA’s First Amendment lawsuit.

According to PETA’s complaint, Shore Transit contracts with Vector Media to sell advertising on the buses, which serve Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties. Under the contract, Shore Transit may reject any advertisement it “determines to be controversial, offensive, objectionable or in poor taste,” PETA stated.

Shore Transit told PETA in May 2020 that its message would not be carried on city buses because it was “too offensive for our market and political in nature,” according to the complaint. PETA said it followed up the next month with a letter demanding the agency’s reconsideration and containing the group’s First Amendment concerns.

But the agency never responded, prompting the lawsuit, PETA added.

“Shore Transit’s advertising policy, and (its) denial of PETA’s proposed advertisements pursuant to that advertising policy, violate PETA’s rights under the … United States Constitution,” Hauss and Cockey wrote in PETA’s complaint. “The policy’s sweeping prohibitions afford enforcement officials unfettered discretion; they are also incapable of reasoned application, content and viewpoint discriminatory, substantially overbroad and unconstitutionally vague.”

The case is docketed in U.S. District Court as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Inc. v. Shore Transit, et al., No. 1:21-cv-02083-JKB.