Ad discouraging SeaWorld visits rejected by San Diego Airport Authority

PETA, ACLU suing over ad rejection

SAN DIEGO - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced Tuesday that it joined the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial counties in suing the operator of San Diego International Airport over its refusal of an advertisement urging visitors to avoid SeaWorld.

PETA and the ACLU contend that advertisements for nonprofits and SeaWorld San Diego are allowed at Lindbergh Field, making the rejection of the animal rights group's message discriminatory.

The ad, valued at $17,500, features actress Kathy Najimy welcoming travelers to San Diego and urging them to stay away from the theme park if they love animals.

The ad reads, "If you love animals like I do, please avoid SeaWorld."

SeaWorld has long been a PETA target over alleged abuse of killer whales featured in its signature "Shamu" shows. The group organizes frequent protests outside the park's gates.

The documentary "Blackfish" has also sparked plenty of debate, even a proposed state bill banning orca shows. Last week, an assemblyman from Santa Monica introduced legislation that would ban such exhibitions.

The county airport authority operates Lindbergh Field, but a private firm, JCDecaux, handles advertising.

"While the government has some authority to regulate advertising, this is an example of the government abusing that authority and unfairly discriminating against the message of a specific advertiser," said Sean Riordan, ACLU senior staff attorney. "The First Amendment stands to protect against this kind of viewpoint discrimination."

"This case boils down to viewpoint discrimination," said David Loy, legal director of the local ACLU chapter.

Loy, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of PETA, said PETA was told by JCDecaux the ad was too demeaning and disparaging.

Najimy, who grew up in San Diego, said her parents took her to SeaWorld when she was young, when "we didn't know better."

The actress, known for her roles in "Sister Act" and the HBO television program "VEEP," said tourists should instead go to Balboa Park, the Old Globe or "get naked at Black's Beach."

SeaWorld denies PETA's allegations of mistreatment.

10News showed the ad to travelers, and one woman said, "I think this ad is over the top."

Another traveler said, "I don't think it's disparaging at all."

Reporter Michael Chen asked, "According to the Airport Authority's advertising policy, displays shall be non-controversial. Isn't the orca debate the definition of controversy?"

"The airport has already opened its doors to this debate," Loy responded.

Loy pointed out the airport has embraced SeaWorld ads in the past.

Loy contends the policy banning controversial ads is too vague and subjective.

The ad company declined to comment for this story. 10News reached out to the Airport Authority, but they did not call back.

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