8 Investigates

Lawsuit challenging GRTC's advertising policy moves forward

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) -- A lawsuit against GRTC is moving forward and it could have a big impact on what transit company can or can’t ban from its buses.

Last year, a watchdog group filed suit against the public transit system when it refused to allow an ad depicting three dogs behind bars on its buses.  

The ad is in opposition to taxpayer-funded dog research at McGuire VA Hospital in Richmond.GRTC’s motion to dismiss the case has been denied. 

The ads eventually went up at Richmond area gas stations but White Coat Waste Project called GRTC’s refusal to give them ad space on its buses censorship and a violation of Constitutional rights.

GRTC alleged it was not a government actor and its advertising policy prohibits political ads. A federal court disagreed. 

"The court said GRTC is providing a government service and run by the City so they are a government actor,” explained Matthew Strugar, Attorney For White Coat Waste Project.

The court also found GRTC’s advertising policy to be applied in an "arbitrary and discriminatory manner" allowing the public transit system to pick and choose which viewpoints it wants to display.

For instance, while White Coat's ad opposing taxpayer-funded deadly dog research was banned from buses, GRTC allowed an ad promoting the 2016 vice presidential debate during a highly contested election cycle.

"It seems as if this policy can run with unlimited discretion to the government. There is certainly a larger issue of Constitutional rights here,” says Strugar.

8News reached out to GRTC and was told they don't comment on active litigation.

State Senator Glen Sturtevant of Virginia's 10th District, which includes parts of Richmond, sent the following statement to 8News:

"I'm troubled by allegations that the City of Richmond's public transit system may be improperly censoring certain messages from being advertised on city buses. I look forward to further review into those practices to ensure fairness and objectivity."

Meanwhile, White Coat's attorney tells us they plan to move forward with their lawsuit 

"We think we have all the evidence we need to win," says Strugar.

Although, the watchdog group is open to reaching an agreement.

"We have reached out to the other side talking about the possibility of settlement,” says Strugar.

8News has been told any settlement would have to include GRTC allowing the ads to run on the buses and GRTC rescinding and revising its policy on political ads. That could open the door for a number of groups who have wanted to advertise on GRTC buses.

GRTC must respond to the court's ruling sometime this week. 

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