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Source: Washington Post (DC)
Author: Carol D. Leonnig, Washington Post Staff Writer
Published: Thursday, April 29, 2004; Page B06 
Copyright: 2004 Washington Post 
Contact: [email protected]

A lawsuit accusing Congress of illegally selecting the kind of political views that can be expressed in Metro station advertisements will probably help shape what Americans can see in mass transit systems across the country, attorneys said in a court hearing yesterday. 

A federal judge heard arguments in a suit filed after Metro rejected an ad from Change the Climate, a group that advocates reforms in laws against marijuana. Metro took the action after Congress passed a law that denies federal money to transit systems that accept advertising promoting the legalization of drugs. 

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman warned that the case's outcome might require Metro to make painful choices. The transit system could be pressed to remove other politically charged advertisements it has long accepted on train platforms and bus shelters, or it could be forced to give up crucial federal funds that help pay for the transit system's expansion. He said he would announce a ruling soon. 

Change the Climate and two other drug policy groups filed the suit, along with the American Civil Liberties Union. They contended that the law amounted to unconstitutional censorship. 

The suit challenges a law that threatens 53 transit authorities with the loss of $3.1 billion in federal funds annually if they accept ads criticizing U.S. drug policy. Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), angered by a marijuana legalization ad that appeared last year in the Metro system, introduced the legislation in December. The ad showed a couple with the legend "Enjoy better sex! Legalize and Tax Marijuana." 

In court yesterday, the Justice Department argued that the federal government can refuse to help provide a canvas for groups to state their political views. Drug policy critics have other places to advertise, said Sara Clash-Drexler, the government attorney. 

By providing federal funds to transit authorities -- including about $170 million to Metro for capital projects each year -- the government is essentially helping to create the public gathering place where such ads are displayed, Clash-Drexler maintained. 

But in weighing the arguments, Friedman told the lawyers that he had "a lot of questions" about why some political advocacy advertisements are considered appropriate by Metro and Congress -- but the drug policy ads are not. 

"Isn't that arbitrary?" he asked. 

Several Metro train platforms now carry ads that call for President Bush to be censured for what they describe as misleading the American public about the war in Iraq. Another ad in the system calls for the resignation of Secretary of Education Roderick R. Paige for alleged failures in a federal education program. 

The judge said that Istook "maybe didn't see the ads about President Bush or Secretary Paige, or his legislation would have been broader . . . to stop those, too." 

The case could hinge on how far Congress's power over the federal purse extends. Attorneys on both sides said that Congress had indicated over the years that it wanted to deny funds to organizations and government agencies that accepted advertising promoting or encouraging illegal behavior. 

"These ads might encourage the use of drugs, which is illegal at this time," Clash-Drexler said. 

But Friedman said he saw little evidence of that and pointed to an oversized advocacy ad displayed at the back of the courtroom. It featured a series of faces behind the bars of a jail cell, with the following caption: "Marijuana Laws Waste Billions of Taxpayer Dollars to Lock Up Non-Violent Americans. " 

That is one of the ads Metro rejected, setting off the suit. 

"What rational person would look at this ad and say it encourages you to break the law?" the judge asked. 

Staff writer Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report. 

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