An environmental group’s anti-logging advertisement was protected by the First Amendment, the Oregon Court of Appeals has ruled, and the Port of Portland failed to meet the “heavy burden” necessary to prohibit the ad from being displayed at the Portland International Airport.

In 2013, Oregon Wild submitted a request to lease advertising space at the airport. The proposed advertisement contained a photograph of a tree-covered mountaintop, part of which had been clear-cut. The caption read, “Welcome to Oregon! Home of the Clearcut.” The ad also included a website address, www.ClearCutOregon.com.

The Port of Portland denied the request, deeming the ad to be “political advertising.” Pursuant to rules adopted by the Port, the agency does not permit advertising materials at the airport that contain religious or political messages. Oregon Wild sued, asserting that the rejection of the advertisement violated the free speech guarantees found in both the Oregon Constitution and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

On cross motions for summary judgment, a trial court sided with Oregon Wild, a ruling affirmed by the Oregon Court of Appeals.

After confirming that the action was not moot despite the fact the advertisement is no longer running, the panel rejected the Port’s argument that it was acting in a dual capacity as both a governmental and a proprietary entity, and that the advertising rules were simply an administrative policy that did not prohibit speech based on content.

“Nothing in the reasoning in the cases cited by the Port—which predominantly concern the Legislature’s ability to exercise control over a local government or the ability of a local government to partake of the state’s sovereign immunity—naturally extends to the context of governmental interference with free expression,” the court said. “The Port has not explained to us why the framers would have intended to give local governments greater latitude to restrict speech while acting in a proprietary capacity.”

Further, “the challenged policy is not simply about speech opportunities; the text expressly regulates based on the content of particular advertisements, prohibiting religious and political content while allowing commercial content,” the panel explained.

To read the opinion in Oregon Natural Resources Council Fund v. Port of Portland, click here.

Why it matters: The decision reiterates the strength of First Amendment protections and the uphill battle facing content-based restrictions on speech.

even President Obama, and, most importantly, by ordinary citizens from every walk of life.”