Southwest Airlines pilots who want to air their grievances over stagnant wages on a billboard at Midway Airport may do so, a federal judge ruled Saturday.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association recently filed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago saying officials' refusal to allow a billboard at Midway in advance of the airline's May 18 shareholders meeting in Chicago was an unconstitutional restriction on their First Amendment rights.
While the city says its decision to ban the billboard was based on guidelines enacted last summer that preclude the display of "all political and public issue advertising" at O'Hare and Midway airports, the pilots union said it was told the ad was banned because the city found it "offensive" and worried that airline officials would disapprove.
The pilots' lawsuit sought a temporary restraining order to allow the pilots to display the ad. On Saturday, U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall ordered the city to allow the ad to be displayed.
In her ruling, Kendall said she would entertain a stay of the order for 12 hours if the city wanted to appeal. A city spokesman said he could not provide comment.
The billboard depicts a uniformed pilot holding a sign that reads "Shareholder returns: $3.1 billion; Pilot raises: $0" beside a legend welcoming Southwest shareholders to Chicago. The ad was rejected twice by the Chicago Department of Aviation, once in a subtly modified version, according to the suit.
In arguing against the union, lawyers for the city said they consistently enforced the ban on political advertising over the last year.
The guidelines were enacted after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 2014 bought billboard space at O'Hare International Airport to protest Air France's treatment of monkeys. They are designed to avoid any advertising "that is offensive or controversial," to "maximize revenue for supporting airport operations," and to avoid the implication that the city or the Chicago Department of Aviation "endorses (any) … message displayed," lawyers for the city wrote in a response to the lawsuit.
"Contrary to SWAPA's assertions, its proposed advertisement advocating for raises for its member pilots was not rejected by the Chicago Department of Aviation because of disagreement with SWAPA's viewpoint," according to the city's response.
The pilots say they have not had an "acceptable" contract since 2012 and have not had a raise since 2011. They are in federal mediation with the airline's management. They plan to protest at the shareholders meeting Wednesday.
CHICAGO (CN) — Chicago's refusal to run an ad in Midway Airport that "respectfully" shows Southwest shareholders earned $3 billion while pilots received no raises violates the First Amendment, the Southwest pilots' union claims.
Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association (SWAPA), the airlines' pilot union, says the City of Chicago violated its First Amendment rights by blocking its proposed advertisement from running in Midway International Airport ahead of the May 18, 2016, meeting of Southwest shareholders in Chicago.
The advertisement states, "The Pilots of SWAPA welcome our shareholders to Chicago," and shows a pilot holding a sign showing that shareholders returns were $3.1 billion, while pilots received $0 in raises.
"As is apparent, the ad thus respectfully welcomed Southwest's shareholders to Chicago for their annual meeting, but suggested that, given Southwest's over $3.1 billion in shareholder returns, the airline's pilots should be given a raise," according to a lawsuit SWAPA filed Tuesday in Northern Illinois Federal Court.
Chicago's Midway Airport is a regional hub for Southwest Airlines.
The Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) rejected the ad, allegedly claiming it is "disparaging" of Southwest, a characterization the pilots' union vigorously denies.
"In rejecting the ad, the CDA admitted that one of the key reasons that it would not allow such speech was that Southwest might find it objectionable," the complaint states. "That sort of viewpoint discrimination based on the content of SWAPA's speech is not a valid reason to restrict speech in any forum, much less a designated public forum like the ad-space at issue here, which has historically been open to wide-ranging speech on a number of issues including public issue and political speech." (Emphasis in original.)
The pilots' union claims it is unconstitutional for the CDA, a department of the City of Chicago, to reject the ad because it expresses the political opinion of a trade union.
"Southwest previously let SWAPA itself run advertisements when it painted Southwest Airlines in a positive light," the lawsuit states. "The restrictions regarding 'political,' 'public issue,' and 'disparaging' advertisements in the CDA's written guidelines are unconstitutionally vague, particularly in light of its actual practice."
The union is represented by Stephen A. Yokich with Dowd, Bloch, Bennett, Cervone, Auerbach & Yokich in Chicago, and also by James M. Wagstaffe with Kerr & Wagstaffe in San Francisco.
CDA Deputy Commissioner of Communications Owen Kilmer said in an emailed statement that the agency properly rejected the pilots' proposed ad.
"Ads that are political, concern a public issue or are disparaging, are not permitted," Kilmer said.
The CDA told the union that it may apply for a permit to allow members to distribute literature or demonstrate in designated areas, according to Kilmer, but the union declined to apply.
Southwest spokesperson Chris Mainz said the company has no comment on the lawsuit.
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