I was stunned when I heard the news: AIDS Walk Los Angeles bus ads were banned in Santa Monica after a six-year, problem free run that was paid for at full commercial rates. Worse still, allnon-profit messages from charities were being rejected from the city’s transit line, Big Blue Bus. Could it be that my “progressive” city, of which I am a 29-year resident, was now favoring large corporationsover community organizations?
Coca Cola ads welcomed; public service announcements from a diabetes foundation — shunned? Promotions for Viagra — yes; but HIV awareness messages — no?
After several months of being rebuffed by Santa Monica city staff in our efforts to open a meaningful dialogue, the picture became clear. The City’s sudden ban was a decision based on a fixation over the possibility of litigation by groups with bad intentions. And it was implemented without any community input. It also ignored the more likely prospect of litigation from groups with good intentions. (The city is now facing just such a suit from three residents, myself included.)
This bus ad ban is serious — and potentially deadly — to the fight against AIDS, and to the missions of non-profit organizations throughout the country.
The AIDS epidemic has taught us that government alone cannot be trusted to address all social problems in a timely or effective manner. That is why this country has a robust non-profit sector.
Santa Monica’s move to suppress these voices is a serious blow to free speech, and it threatens to throw us back into the darkest days of message discrimination on matters of public health.
We cannot appropriately honor the lives we have lost to AIDS if we do not pay attention to the factors that contributed to them being cut down. Government inaction, government censorship, and the resulting lack of visibility of the HIV epidemic are exactly what held us back. We have come too far and fought too hard to allow those same forces to stifle the progress we have made.
The city of Santa Monica stands at a crossroads. It can reverse its absurd new policy. It can take the path of great cities, show leadership, and refuse to surrender to the hands of extremists on the left, extremists on the right, and the courts rendering the final verdict. Or its leaders can be passive. They can be fear-based instead of vision-based. And they can let this debate roll over them, the First Amendment, and their residents like a driverless bus.
I sincerely hope that my hometown of choice will be among the great cities.
CRAIG R. MILLER is the founder of the AIDS Walks and the longtime senior organizer of AIDS Walk Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. He is also president of AIDS Community Action Foundation.