The remedy to be applied is distancing speech
I have not written about the numerous controversies that have sprung up over anti-Islam ads by the American Freedom Defense Initiative on public-transit billboards throughout the country. The ads feature the slogan “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man” and urge people to “Support Israel/Defeat Jihad.” Transit authorities have sought various ways to deal with ads that many find offensive and which have sparked fears of both anti-Muslim discrimination and Muslim violence. Efforts to block the ads have, quite correctly, failed–transit billboard spaces are public fora and the objection is pretty clearly content- and viewpoint-based.
One solution to post disclaimers next to the AFDI ads, stating that Muni “doesn’t support the message” (San Francisco’s Muni) or, for those who want legal detail, “This is a paid advertisement sponsored by [sponsor]. The advertising space is a designated public forum and does not imply WMATA’s endorsement of any views express.” (Washington, D.C.’s WMATA). Pam Geller, a conservative blogger, co-founder of AFDI, and driving force behind this ad campaign, derided the San Francisco plan as “the manifestation of Sharia in Western society,” which seems just a tad overwrought.
Obviously, government can respond to private speech in a public forum; a disclaimer distancing the government from AFDI’s message is one very good way to respond to or oppose a message being espoused in the forum. We might question whether it is necessary, whether anyone would seriously believe the transit authority endorses every message on every billboard in the Metro stop. But making that disassociation explicit seems an appropriate way for government to proceed.
But there arguably is something different at work here than simple government speech. Here, the transit authorities are responding to a message through and with the message itself. The government is slapping its own message on top of the private message and using the original message as the vehicle for its own. This then looks less like government counter-speaking to the private speaker than the private speaker being compelled to counter-speak to itself. By making the counter-speech part of the private speech, it looks a lot like mandatory warnings, which ordinarily raise concerns outside the commercial speech context. So the transit authority could post signs throughout the forum explaining designated public forums, its obligation to accept the offensive ads, and its non-endorsement of the message; but its power to place that sign on top of the particular billboards from which it wants to distance itself is more limited.
Alternatively, perhaps the disclaimer is better understood not as government counter-speech (which receives no First Amendment scrutiny) and more as a condition on, or term of access to, the traditional public forum (akin with having to pay a fee), which does receive constitutional scrutiny. Then the question is how broadly government applies the new practice. It would be plainly unconstitutional if the government singled out only this speaker or message for a disclaimer or if it singled out only certain speakers or messages in content-based terms. The WMATA policy apparently will apply to all “viewpoint” ads, a non-legal term that I am guessing means noncommercial ads. That is better than only targeting AFDI. But distinguishing commercial and non-commercial is still content-based, so WMATA must justify the distinction; the likely argument is that only noncommercial speech requires a disclaimer because only noncommercial speech creates a risk that the authority will be associated with the controversial or offensive message (although I wonder how true that is). Assuming that these disclaimers are more than ordinary government speech and thus are subject to some First Amendment scrutiny, the transit authorities would be better off applying the disclaimers to all ads of all kinds.