The (Eugene) Register-Guard on free speech and political ads at PDX:
Oregonians have valued free speech and nurtured a healthy, well-founded distrust for intrusive governmental restrictions since their state’s constitution was drafted in 1857.
Oregon’s founders purposefully gave their state’s constitution far stronger free-speech protections than those listed in the U.S. Constitution. Anyone doubting that should read Article I, Section 8 of the state’s Bill of Rights. It reads: “No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever; but every person shall be responsible for the abuse of this right.”
That’s about as plain as the law gets. Multnomah Circuit Pro Tem Judge Eric J. Neiman cited that same section in a ruling last week that struck down the Port of Portland’s ban on political advertising at the Portland International Airport.
While the courts have ruled that the free-speech provisions of the U.S. Constitution make some room for government bodies to refuse political ads, the Oregon Constitution does nothing of the kind, Neiman rightly ruled.
The port could have saved the expense of fighting a lawsuit brought by Oregon Wild, the nonprofit environmental organization which, along with the Audubon Society of Portland and other groups, sought to display a billboard at the Portland airport. The postcard-like advertisement showed a large slope in the Coast Range that has been completely logged and said: “Welcome to Oregon: Home of the Clearcut.”
The port also could have prevented a well-deserved public-relations black eye by first consulting the free speech protections in the state’s constitution, which are the strongest in the nation. Or it could have followed the lead of the Eugene Airport, which earlier this year allowed the display of the same billboard that the Port of Portland refused. Eugene officials accepted the ad based on advice from the city attorney’s office, which cited a 2011 ruling by the Oregon Court of Appeals, which found that the policy of Portland area transit operator TriMet to accept only commercial ads violated the First Amendment. (That decision has been appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, which has yet to rule in the case.)
Portland airport officials should have credited visitors to their airport with having the intelligence and reasoning powers to look at the Oregon Wild billboard and make up their own minds — as many visitors to the Eugene Airport no doubt did when they saw the same advertisement. Most people don’t need or want government officials to decide for them whether political advertisements are persuasive, foolish or offensive.
The Port of Portland argued that it has traditionally prohibited political and religious advertising in an attempt to provide a welcoming atmosphere and to not be seen as taking positions on political or religious issues. But it’s doubtful that visitors to the airport think the airport endorses every commercial product advertised in its corridors, and there is no reason they would think the same of political advertisements.
By rejecting the Oregon Wild billboard, the Port of Portland inadvertently insulted the intelligence of visitors who are entitled to make up their own minds about political ads, and it wasted valuable resources fighting a lawsuit it had no chance of winning. More importantly, the port ignored the constitution of a state whose founders understood that it is necessary to allow the widest possible range of expressions to safeguard against government meddling.