ACLU sues Washington, D.C., transit system for removing Milo Yiannopoulos ads

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a free speech lawsuit on behalf of one of the nation’s most prominent right-wing provocateurs on Wednesday, arguing that Washington, D.C., transit officials violated Milo Yiannopoulos’ 1st Amendment rights by removing advertisements for his new book.

Yiannopoulos, who is British, is not the group’s only client in its lawsuit filed in federal court against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. The ACLU’s lawsuit also objected to the agency’s decision to block ad placements for the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the abortion provider Carafem and the ACLU itself.

But it’s the left-leaning group’s defense of Yiannopoulos — a former editor of Breitbart News who has criticized the ACLU in the past — that is likely to raise the most eyebrows.

The ACLU has long filed free speech cases on behalf of far-right groups and individuals who are traditionally adversaries of the ACLU’s own base of supporters, who have counted on the civil liberties organization to act as a bulwark against the Trump administration in the courts.

But the case marks one of the first times that the ACLU has stepped in to represent a member of Yiannopoulos’ milieu — the new generation of younger right-wing agitators who have gained national prominence over the last two years through online trolling and public spectacles, claiming the mantle of free speech advocacy while left-wing opponents accuse them of using hate speech against people of color, immigrants and Muslims.

“This case is a beautiful illustration of the indivisibility of the 1st Amendment,” said Lee Rowland, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s national branch and one of the attorneys behind the lawsuit. “When we give government the power to regulate speakers based on their identity or their perceived level of offense, it reduces speech for all of us.”

Rowland added: “It is important to defend speech we hate, because that means the 1st Amendment tide rises for all of us.”

In statement sent to the Los Angeles Times via text message, Yiannopoulos said he was “glad that the ACLU has decided to tackle a real civil rights issue” after backing “plenty of bad causes in the past,” though he added that “they are also often in the right.”

“Free speech isn’t about only support speech you agree with, it is about supporting all speech — especially the words of your enemies,” Yiannopoulos wrote. “Strong opponents keep us honest.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit stems from ad rules instituted by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in 2015 that include bans on some medical advertisements and advertisements “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions.”

“One of our core allegations is that WMATA’s rules are so vague that they could basically decide that any advertisement does or does not pass muster on a totally ad hoc basis,” said Rowland.

Requests to place paid ads for PETA, Carafem and ACLU “were flat-out rejected by these very mushy rules,” Rowland said.

In June, WMATA’s outside advertising agency initially agreed to place ads for Yiannopoulos’ new book, “Dangerous,” after reaching a $27,690 deal with Yiannopoulos’ company, MILO Worldwide LLC, the lawsuit said.

But about 10 days into a four-week run, the agency reversed course and took down dozens of advertisements featuring Yiannopoulos’ face and the book title after riders complained, offering to pay back Yiannopoulos’ company, according to the lawsuit. Yiannopoulos refused, stating: “We consider this to be a violation of our 1st Amendment rights.”

The lawsuit seeks to have the ads reinstated for placement on Washington’s transit system and for the agency’s ad rules to be declared unconstitutional.

The agency plans to fight the lawsuit. “WMATA intends to vigorously defend its commercial advertising guidelines, which are reasonable and view-point neutral,” the agency said in a statement.

This is not Yiannopoulos’ only lawsuit involving his book. Yiannopoulos has also sued Simon & Schuster for canceling its book contract with Yiannopoulos in February as Yiannopoulos faced public criticism over his past comments appearing to endorse pedophilia. Not typically one to apologize for something he’s said, the firestorm resulted in Yiannopoulos resigning from Breitbart News and backing away from his remarks.

Yiannopoulos has since attempted to stage a comeback by self-publishing his book and launching an entertainment company based in Florida. Yiannopoulos’ book has spent four weeks on the New York Times’ combined print & e-book nonfiction bestseller list, though the book has been panned by mainstream critics.

Yiannopoulos had gained national prominence in 2016 and 2017, in part by speaking at college campuses around the nation. According to several contracts obtained by The Times through public records requests, the speaking engagements were unpaid. One of those events at UC Berkeley was canceled when left-wing protesters smashed windows and clashed with police in protest of his appearance.

The contracts said Yiannopoulos was being represented by Glittering Steel, a film production company at one time run by former Breitbart News chairman and current White House senior advisor Stephen K. Bannon, according to White House financial disclosure forms. It was also reportedly co-founded by GOP megadonor Rebekah Mercer.

Yiannopoulos’ representatives had initially sought an interview with The Times in July to promote his new book, but Yiannopoulos backed out after The Times asked about his relationship with the Mercer family.

“We don’t comment about investors or potential investors,” Yiannopoulos said in a series of text messages in July, accusing the newspaper of attempting to run a “hit job” on him. “I’m sure you can get interviews with lesser figures on the ‘new right.’ They need the attention more than I do.”

He seemed to take exception at being compared to other right-wing media personalities such as Michael Cernovich and Jack Posobiec, who have gained wider attention in recent months, much as Yiannopoulos had, by often causing consternation for liberals.

“They are political operatives,” Yiannopoulos wrote. “I am a star. There isn’t a close second to me in what I do.”

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Twitter: @mattdpearce

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