RALEIGH — An animal rights group is suing the Raleigh Transit Authority after it rejected the group’s advertisement that would put photos of caged pigs on the sides of buses.
According to the Humane Society of the United States’ lawsuit – filed last week – Raleigh’s transit board called the ad campaign “too negative” and suggested instead that the bus ads show cartoon pigs “looking sad.” Lawyers for the Washington-based group said Tuesday that the move violates First Amendment free speech rights.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Peter Brandt, the Humane Society’s senior attorney for farm animals. “We have the constitutional right to show what (the pork) industry is doing.”
The Humane Society’s ad campaign takes aim at the use of gestation crates – 2-foot-wide cages where some female pigs are confined for much of their lives. Some states have banned the practice, and companies, such as Smithfield and Hormel, say they’re phasing out the technique.
The proposed ads would wrap around entire Capital Area Transit buses and include close-up photos of caged pigs. The caption: “How would you like to spend the rest of your life in a space as small as a bus seat?”
Last year, the ads appeared on buses in Des Moines, Iowa – capital of the country’s largest pork-producing state – and in Washington. A spokesman for the Des Moines transit system said the ads prompted “few, if any” complaints. The Humane Society paid Des Moines $14,810 to wrap a bus for six months.
The Humane Society decided last September to expand the campaign to North Carolina, another leading pork producer. It’s not clear how much the group planned to spend on the campaign. But the Raleigh Transit Authority, a City Council-appointed committee that oversees Capital Area Transit, said no.
Image ‘too negative’
Reached Tuesday, Raleigh Transit Administrator David Eatman wouldn’t talk about the proposed ads, citing the pending lawsuit. “I’m prohibited from providing any comment,” Eatman said.
According to the lawsuit, transit marketing specialist Lindsay Pennell wrote in an email that the “image of the pigs is too negative for us to place on the buses. ... (Board members) said that if the images were less graphic or the ad was less negative they could approve. Some ideas given were make a cartoon pig in a small bus seat looking sad, or a slogan like ‘don’t blog, help the hog.’ ”
Pennell pointed to the bus service’s advertising policy, which bans any ads that “may be construed to reflect endorsement” by the city.
Brandt doesn’t buy that interpretation. He says the Humane Society was willing to include a disclaimer making that clear.
“The transit authority’s policy is so vague that it basically boils down to the whim of the agency,” Brandt said. “That’s legally unacceptable. You can have standards for excluding advertisements, but the standards have to be specific.”
The controversy isn’t the first time public bus advertising has caused a stir in the Triangle. Last year, a Presbyterian church ran ads on Chapel Hill Transit buses calling for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel. Some found the message offensive, and the controversy prompted the town council to debate whether religious and political ads should be allowed.
The topics are now permitted in Chapel Hill bus ads – but with a disclaimer stating that the town does not endorse the opinions.
In Raleigh, attorneys for the city haven’t filed a response to the Humane Society lawsuit yet; they have several months to do so. And while Raleigh officials are silent, another group joined the debate Tuesday.
Nonprofit denounces suit
The Center for Consumer Freedom – a Washington-based nonprofit that lobbies on behalf of food companies, including those that continue to use gestation crates – issued a news release attacking the Humane Society’s ad campaign, saying the message “is misrepresentative of actual conditions on pork farms across the country.”
“Veterinarians and farmers agree that individual maternity pens provide for pigs’ welfare,” said Will Coggin, a research analyst with the group. “The Raleigh Transit Authority ruled the ad is too negative, and it should find the ad deceptive and misleading as well.”
The Humane Society’s state director, Kim Alboum, says her group stands behind the message.
“There are thousands and thousands of sows in North Carolina living in gestation crates,” Alboum said. “It is one of the worst forms of animal cruelty in the agricultural industry.”
Alboum hopes the lawsuit – which asks a judge to declare the ad rejection unconstitutional – will help bring the discussion to Raleigh buses.
“I think looking at these images on the side of the bus are pretty compelling,” Alboum said. “We think that it’s going to be very hard to miss in this format.”
Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter