Less than two years after a court ordered Phoenix to allow gun-rights activists to plaster city bus shelters with the slogan “Guns Save Lives,” officials have once again attempted to censor advertisements containing the emotionally charged phrase.
The new ads, much like the signs that sparked a four-year legal battle in 2010, feature the “Guns Save Lives” slogan inside a heart and direct viewers to visit TrainMeAZ.com, a website run by a coalition of local shooting-related businesses that promotes firearm safety and marksmanship classes.
Alan Korwin, a Scottsdale author who owns the United States’ largest publisher and distributor of gun-law literature, designed the signs to spread the message that “guns are good” and, when properly handled, can help “stop crime,” he said.
The city of Phoenix, negotiating through a representative with the ad agency Outfront Media, told Korwin he could not post the signs unless he altered the message. In particular, according to e-mail correspondence provided to New Times, officials took issue with a paragraph of fine print that reads: “Arizona leads the nation in good self-defense laws and matching public classes.”
Lars Jacoby, a spokesman for the Phoenix Public Transit Department, said the line was “veering a little too close” to violating the agency’s advertising standards, which prohibit all “non-commercial speech.” He said it is common for the city to go back and forth with advertisers to fine-tune messages.
Korwin refused to change the sign’s wording, and, eventually, the city backed down. Still, Korwin said he was “in shock” that Phoenix was still attempting to “censor speech.”
“They want to control what you say even when it’s not harmful, it’s not illegal, and it’s not fraudulent,” he said.
In 2010, Phoenix officials removed Korwin’s “Guns Save Lives” signs just nine days after they were posted, arguing, according to court documents, that it was “political rhetoric in the sheep’s clothing of an ostensible commercial advertisement.”
Korwin, with the help of the Goldwater Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union, sued and won the right to post the ads.
The chips fell in Korwin’s favor, however, because the Arizona Court of Appeals determined that the city failed to apply its own advertising standards accurately, said Clint Bolick, vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute. The court did not address the broader constitutional question: Is Phoenix’s ban on political speech a violation of the First Amendment?
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As a result, the city was not required to change its approach to approving — or rejecting — ads to post on bus stops.
“This is exactly what we were afraid would happen,” Bolick said, when he heard Phoenix officials were fussing over Korwin’s signs again. “I suspect a meeker person than Alan would be subject to having his or her rights violated by the city.”
Phoenix’s process of determining which ads are political and which ads are not is so willy-nilly, Bolick said, that even the officials who made the decisions could not accurately recall in court which ads they had previously rejected and which they had approved. It’s a “we know it when we see it” standard, he said, which “isn’t good enough for the First Amendment.
“The city should not be editing people’s signs,” he said. “The constitution is very clear; the government doesn’t get to coauthor people’s speech.”