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LEBRON v. AMTRAK

February 5, 1993

MICHAEL A. LEBRON, Plaintiff,
v.
THE NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORPORATION (AMTRAK) and TRANSPORTATION DISPLAYS INCORPORATED, Defendant.


Leval


The opinion of the court was delivered by: PIERRE N. LEVAL

OPINION AND ORDER

Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law

 PIERRE N. LEVAL, U.S.D.J.

 This is a so-called "Bivens" action, *fn1" brought under the First Amendment by an artist, Michael A. Lebron, would-be lessor of a gigantic billboard in New York's Pennsylvania Station. The primary defendant is Amtrak, the National Passenger Railroad Corporation, which, as owner of the billboard, rejected the two-month lease plaintiff had contracted for with Amtrak's leasing agent because plaintiff's display was "political." Plaintiff contends the rejection was inconsistent with the requirements of the First Amendment. He sues to invalidate the rejection so that he can obtain the benefit of his lease agreement.

 As an alternative theory, plaintiff alleges that Amtrak and its leasing agent Transportation Displays Incorporated ("TDI"), the second defendant, are estopped by reason of delay from denying plaintiff's contract.

 On the consent of the parties, trial was conducted on an expedited basis, upon written submissions. The court's findings of fact and conclusions of law are as follows.

 Background

 Lebron is an artist who creates works for display on billboards. His works often involve commentary on public issues. See, e.g., Lebron v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, 242 U.S. App. D.C. 215, 749 F.2d 893 (D.C. Cir. 1984). During 1991 and 1992, he made plans for a photomontage for a particular billboard in Penn Station. The billboard is known as the Spectacular; it is a curved, back-lit display space approximately 103 feet wide and 10 feet high, covering the east-facing wall of the rotunda area, facing passengers (and others) who walk westward toward the waiting areas, ticket booths, and train platforms.

 Defendant TDI is an advertising agency that handles the leasing of billboards for many of Amtrak's properties and for other billboard owners in the rail transportation system. Amtrak has authorized TDI to lease the billboards in Penn Station. While the licensing agreement reserves for Amtrak the right of approval of all advertising copy, in practice, Amtrak does not review advertising copy, excepting advertisements for the Spectacular.

 In August 1991, Lebron first contacted TDI about contracting for billboard space in Penn Station. He spoke from time to time with William B. Schwartz, a TDI account executive. Schwartz told him that while no displays would be accepted that included obscenity or violence, there were no other policy restrictions on advertising.

 The Spectacular was available for two months at the beginning of 1993. Lebron and TDI reached agreement on financial terms of $ 18,500 a month for January and February 1993. In August 1992, Schwartz gave Lebron the standard rental form contract, which Lebron signed and returned. During the negotiations, Schwartz asked Lebron what he would display on the billboard. Lebron responded that in general his work was political, although it often looked like advertising, but that he preferred to keep confidential the specific content of the work he was creating for the Spectacular. Schwartz did not suggest that the political nature of the work would be a problem.

 On November 30, 1992, TDI signed the agreement. The terms of the contract included the following:

 All advertising copy is subject to approval of TDI and the Transportation Facility concerned [i.e., the owner of the billboard] as to character, text, illustration, design and operation.

 If for any cause beyond its control TDI shall cease to have the right to continue the advertising covered by this contract, or if the Transportation Facility concerned should deem such advertising objectionable for any reason, TDI shall have the right to terminate the contract and discontinue the service without notice.

 During the fall, Lebron worked on creation of his piece for the 10 x 103 foot space. On December 2, 1992, he provided TDI with a color photocopy of his piece. The work is a photomontage, accompanied by considerable text. Taking off on a widely circulated Coors beer advertisement which proclaims Coors to be the "Right Beer," Lebron's piece is captioned "Is it the Right's Beer Now?" It includes photographic images of convivial drinkers of Coors beer, juxtaposed with a Nicaraguan village scene in which peasants are menaced by a can of Coors that hurtles towards them, leaving behind a tail of fire, as if it were a missile. The accompanying text, appearing on either end of the montage, criticizes the Coors family for its support of right-wing causes, particularly the contras in Nicaragua. Again taking off on Coors' advertising which uses the slogan of "Silver Bullet" for its beer cans, the text proclaims that Coors is "The Silver Bullet that aims The Far Right's political agenda at the heart of America."

 On December 7, TDI sent the work on to Amtrak for approval. Ten days later, Anthony DeAngelo, the Amtrak Vice President for Real Estate and Operations Development, the person authorized by Amtrak's Board of Directors to oversee third-party advertising located on Amtrak property, disapproved Lebron's work on the grounds that it was "political." Amtrak notified TDI of this decision on December 23 in a letter stating that "Amtrak's policy is that it will not allow political advertising on the Spectacular advertising sign." Lebron learned of Amtrak's rejection from TDI on December 29, 1992, three days before his advertisement was to appear in the Spectacular.

 Discussion

 A. Governmental Action

 Lebron contends that in rejecting his work Amtrak engaged in censorship in violation of his free speech rights under the First Amendment. Alternatively put, he contends that Amtrak's actions violated the requirements that the First Amendment imposes on governmental regulation of speech. The prohibitions of the First Amendment are "a restraint on government action, not that of private persons." Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. v. Democratic National Committee, 412 U.S. 94, 114, 36 L. Ed. 2d 772, 93 S. Ct. 2080 (1973) (citing Public Utilities Comm'n v. Pollak, 343 U.S. 451, 96 L. Ed. 1068, 72 S. Ct. 813 (1952)).

 Amtrak claims it is a private entity, immune from the restrictions of the First Amendment and, to the contrary, guaranteed the right under the First Amendment to control speech on its billboards in whatever fashion it chooses. The first issue in contention thus turns on whether Amtrak should be deemed a governmental or a private actor for these purposes.

 "Conduct that is formally 'private' may become . . . so impregnated with a governmental character as to become subject to the constitutional limitations placed upon state action." Evans v. Newton, 382 U.S. 296, 299, 15 L. Ed. 2d 373, 86 S. Ct. 486 (1966). The Supreme Court has outlined several ways through which the activities of a private entity can become governmental action. One such standard is relevant here. *fn2" Under this standard, known as the "symbiotic relationship" test, private activity becomes subject to the restrictions that the Constitution imposes on government when the government "has so far insinuated itself into a position of interdependence with [the private entity] that it must be recognized as a joint participant in the challenged activity." Burton v. Wilmington Parking Auth., 365 U.S. 715, 725, 6 L. Ed. 2d 45, 81 S. Ct. 856 (1961); accord Evans v. Newton, 382 U.S. at 299. There must be a "'sufficiently close nexus between the State and the challenged action . . . so that the action of the [private actor] may be fairly treated as that of the State itself.'" Blum v. Yaretsky, 457 U.S. 991, 1004, 73 L. Ed. 2d 534, 102 S. Ct. 2777 (1982) (quoting Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 419 U.S. 345, 351, 42 L. Ed. 2d 477, 95 S. Ct. 449 (1974)). See also Myron v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 752 F.2d 50, 54 (2d Cir. 1985) (same standards applied in assessing "federal action" as for "state action") (citing ...


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