AP NEWS

Higher court decision favors women’s health group over Citilink

June 23, 2016 GMT

An advertisement by a local woman’s health group opposed to abortion rights can be displayed inside Fort Wayne’s Citilink buses.

That is according to a ruling Wednesday by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling overturns a January order by U.S. District Judge Robert L. Miller that found Citilink was within its rights to prohibit a series of advertisements that Fort Wayne Women’s Health Link wanted to put on the city’s buses.

″(Citilink’s) refusal to allow Health Link’s ad to be displayed is an unjustifiable, because arbitrary and discriminatory, restriction of free speech,” wrote Judge Richard Posner in the opinion.

Filed two years ago by the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of Women’s Health Link, the lawsuit accused the Fort Wayne Public Transportation Corporation of violating the constitutional rights of the organization by denying it permission to buy a series of small ads to run inside the buses.

According to court documents, the 11-by-17-inch ad would cost $524 for three months and says “You are not alone” and “Free resources for women seeking health care” on either side of the smiling face of a young woman, with the organization’s website and telephone number on a banner below.

Citilink officials rejected the proposed ad on two occasions, saying their attorneys believed that the organization’s website dealt with “controversial issues,” according to court documents.

Citilink’s policy allows public service announcements, but it can reject an ad if it contains false or misleading information or if it “advocates opinions or positions on political, religious, or moral issues,” according to court documents.

The woman who submitted the advertisement on behalf of Women’s Health Link was on the organization’s board of directors and also was communications manager for Allen County Right to Life, according to court documents.

Women’s Health Link and Allen County Right to Life share email addresses and a physical address.

According to its official website, “Women’s Health Link is a free referral resource in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for women seeking physical, emotional, spiritual or mental health care.”

Posner wrote that while it is now known Women’s Health Link is pro-life, that is not revealed in the ad, and nothing in Citilink’s policies “suggest a concern about what may lie behind an innocuous ad.”

The higher court noted that the United Way is permitted to advertise, as are other organizations that urge vaccinations, health care, voting, and other issues.

“What is important is not what other advertisers are permitted to do but that Citilink’s ad censorship policy is limited to ad content,” Posner wrote. “The content of Health Link’s proposed ad lacks the faintest suggestion of a political, religious, or moral aim or agenda.”

The ruling overturns Miller’s ruling in favor of Citilink and enters a judgment for Women’s Health Link.

“Citilink’s refusal to post the ad was groundless discrimination against constitutionally protected speech,” Posner wrote.

It was unclear Wednesday evening if city attorneys intended to appeal the Seventh Circuit ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

rgreen@jg.net