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GRTC Transit refused to allow White Coat Waste Project to run this advertisement on its buses, claiming it is considered a political ad.

The group leading a campaign against painful dog experiments at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond filed a lawsuit on Thursday against the city’s transit service for refusing to carry advertisements disparaging the studies on its buses.

White Coat Waste Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit with a self-proclaimed goal of ending taxpayer-funded animal experiments, is alleging that GRTC Transit System violated its First and 14th amendment rights by refusing to run the ads, deeming them political.

The advertisement features an image of three dogs peeking out from behind bars overlaid with the text “Prisoners Of Waste,” under which it states, “McGuire VA Medical Center: Stop Taxpayer-Funded Dog Experiments.”

The suit claims that the policy prohibiting political ads is too broad and allows the agency to decide what is considered political, which creates “content- and viewpoint-based discrimination.”

“The policy against so-called political ads allows the government to pick and choose what views people can express,” said Matthew Strugar, a Los Angeles-based attorney representing White Coat Waste. “They implement the policy in a way that appears inconsistent with their own policy and with the law.”

Carrie Rose Pace, GRTC’s director of communications, said in an email that the transit system rejected the ad in compliance with its bus advertising policy, and that “Animal testing triggered the ad policy.” She specifically referenced what she called “political position statements” on the organization’s website, the link for which is displayed on the advertisement.

GRTC’s policy, which prohibits “all political ads,” states that, “GRTC reserves the right to reject or remove any advertising which it deems not to be in compliance with these regulations.”

The suit seeks no money but asks the Eastern District Court of Virginia to declare that GRTC violated White Coat Waste’s First and 14th amendment rights, and to order GRTC to run its ads.

“We want the same terms and conditions that are applied to any other advertiser to be applied to White Coat Waste,” Strugar said. “They’re innocuous ads; it’s not as if it’s gruesome or particularly controversial.”

Earlier this year, White Coat Waste launched a campaign to stop experiments on dogs at McGuire, which the medical center was conducting as part of its research into cardiac health in humans, and for which it received funding through state grants. Some of the experiments are classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as extremely painful without providing relief to the dogs.

Dr. Michael Fallon, chief veterinary medical officer with the VA, said in a statement that animal experiments have led to discoveries that have benefited human health, and that dog hearts are more similar in size to human hearts than those of mice, rats or pigs, which makes them preferable for the research.

White Coat Waste filed a complaint with the VA Office of Inspector General after it uncovered instances of noncompliance through Freedom of Information Act requests, some of which included mistakes during surgeries that caused some dogs to die. Fallon said McGuire responded to those deficiencies and removed the surgeon responsible for the mistakes from animal experimentation.

The watchdog group tried to advertise with GRTC in March, according to the lawsuit. After it was rejected, an executive for White Coat Waste tried to convince GRTC that the ad was “public education” and explained that the group has bipartisan support.

The suit states that Rose Pace explained that it would be considered a public service advertisement if White Coat Waste partnered with a local jurisdictional office such as Richmond’s Animal Care and Control, but since it had not, the advertisement could not run.

The lawsuit details similar instances when GRTC turned down advertisements because it deemed them political, including an advertisement from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine for its campaign to keep fast-food restaurants out of hospitals and another from the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association stating that “Virginia Hospitals are Willing to Go ALL IN for Health Care.”

While both those advertisements were considered political, the lawsuit contends, GRTC did run an advertisement for the 2016 presidential debates at Longwood College. GRTC reasoned that, “all political parties (were) invited to participate, it is neutral and state-approved” and “does not advertise a political message for any perspective,” according to the lawsuit.

The policy is confusing, the suit alleges, and “fails to enable a reasonable member of the public to know which advertisements are permitted or prohibited,” while it also gives GRTC the “unfettered discretion to decide which advertisements to permit or reject.”

“We don’t know what they mean by ‘political,’ ” Strugar said. “Perhaps they mean controversial?”

The suit goes on to argue that the policy allows for one side of a debate. A fast-food company can advertise, “Buy Hamburgers,” but an animal-rights group cannot run an advertisement that says, “Don’t Buy Hamburgers.”

It adds that allowing ads to run only if the advertiser partners with a local, state or federal government agency “discriminates on the basis of the identity of the speaker.”

Strugar explained that, because GRTC is a public entity, its advertisements are considered a “forum,” so First Amendment rules apply.

In her emailed response, Rose Pace explained that White Coat Waste’s ad topic, “as further explained on WhiteCoatWaste.org also violated the ad policy.”

“The homepage features this political position statement, ‘... taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay over $15 billion every year for wasteful experiments on dogs, cats, monkeys and other animals that are irrelevant, slow, expensive and hinder life-saving medical advancements,’ ” Rose Pace said.

GRTC’s ad policy prohibits the display of advertising copy or graphics that contain phone numbers or websites that would violate its policy, “if they were contained in advertising displayed or posted on GRTC Transit System vehicles.”

White Coat Waste’s lawsuit outlines a similar instance when another ad was rejected due to its website content. Bethany Christian Services wanted to advertise pregnancy counseling services. Though the ad itself did not contain the organization’s name or any religious references, the website did, thus violating GRTC’s policy.

Earlier this month, state Sens. William M. Stanley Jr., R-Franklin County, and Glen H. Sturtevant Jr., R-Richmond, wrote to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office, requesting additional information about whether the state knew about the dog testing when awarding the grants and to determine how much taxpayer money went toward those and similar experiments.

In a response sent Wednesday, McAuliffe’s office directed the senators to the Center for Innovative Technology, the Herndon-based group that handles day-to-day operations for the state’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Investment Authority, which is responsible for the grants in question.

White Coat Waste’s message also has infiltrated the federal government. Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th, introduced the PUPPERS Act — Preventing Unkind and Painful Procedures and Experiments on Respected Species — that, if enacted, would prohibit taxpayer money going toward dog experiments at the VA that are classified as painful.

Justin Goodman, White Coat Waste’s vice president of advocacy and public policy, said the advertisements were meant to spread the word about the experiments. After a veteran working at McGuire saw ads that were posted at a local gas station through a friend, he sent the group photos of dogs that are used in the research.

“Taxpayers have a right to know that their state and federal taxes are being spent to torture dogs at the VA in Richmond,” Goodman said. “The government works very hard to keep this a secret, and people should know what they’re paying for.”

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koconnor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6813

Twitter: @katiedemeria

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