ACLU sues for right­ist provo­ca­teur

D.C. tran­sit sys­tem is ac­cused of vi­o­lat­ing Milo Yiannopou­los’ free­dom to ad­ver­tise his best­selling book.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Matt Pearce matt.pearce@la­times.com Twit­ter: @mattd­pearce

The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union filed a freespeech 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 as 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 lawyers 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,” Row­land said.

Re­quests to place paid ads for PETA, Carafem and the 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 his 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 rider com­plaints, 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. He has also sued Si­mon & Schus­ter for can­cel­ing his book con­tract in Fe­bru­ary as he faced public crit­i­cism over past com­ments that ap­peared to en­dorse pe­dophilia. Not typ­i­cally one to apol­o­gize for some­thing he’s said, Yiannopou­los re­signed from Bre­it­bart News and backed 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. The book has spent four weeks on the New York Times’ com­bined print & e-book non­fic­tion best­seller list but has been panned by main­stream crit­ics.

Yiannopou­los gained na­tional promi­nence in 2016 and 2017, in part by speak­ing at col­lege cam­puses around the U.S. Ac­cord­ing to sev­eral con­tracts ob­tained by The Times through public records re­quests, the speak­ing en­gage­ments were un­paid. One of those events planned for 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 Repub­li­can 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,” he 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 with other right-wing me­dia per­son­al­i­ties such as Mike 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.”

Drew An­gerer Getty Im­ages

MILO YIANNOPOU­LOS also sued pub­lisher Si­mon & Schus­ter this year for killing his book deal. Washington’s tran­sit sys­tem bans ads that try to sway views on is­sues “on which there are vary­ing opin­ions.”

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