Authored by Michael Clements via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),
The owner of a Flagstaff, Arizona, firing range and gun store says the city is violating his First Amendment rights by refusing to renew an advertising contract he’s had since 2019.
City officials did not respond to emails and telephone messages seeking comment for this story before press time.
During a recent city council meeting, a deputy city attorney said city leaders are reviewing advertising policies. He took issue with how the dispute was portrayed in news reports.
“The city is not abusing its power to advance an anti-gun agenda,” deputy city attorney Kevin Fincel told the council.
Rob Wilson owns Timberline Firearms and Training. He purchased ad time on the video monitors over the baggage carousels in the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, along with other Flagstaff businesses, in 2019.
He decided to advertise in the airport while traveling for his other job as a consultant with the U.S. Navy when he saw how many tourists pass through the airport.
Mr. Wilson contacted Clear Channel, the company that handled advertising at the airport at the time. Clear Channel presented the ad to the city, which approved it, and it ran during tourist season.
According to Mr. Wilson, last April, he applied to run the ad again this year, hoping for a post-pandemic boost to his business. Instead, he was told the ad was no longer acceptable. He was told the city had a policy against promoting violent or anti-social messages.
The Timberline ad shows a photo of people holding semi-automatic rifles and a short video of a firearms instructor working with a person who appears to be firing a fully automatic rifle on an indoor range. He was not told which part of the 10-second spot violated the policy.
He also pointed out that an ad for a laser-tag business in which people chase and shoot at one another with toy pistols was apparently deemed acceptable.
Mr. Wilson said he protested the decision and asked how he could appeal.
“I was told that there was no appeal process and, oh by the way, they were going to instead rewrite their entire advertising policy, and that was going to take all summer,” he told The Epoch Times.
So, Timberline’s advertisement was effectively shut out of the ad rotation at the airport, Mr. Wilson said.
According to Mr. Wilson, since 2019, Clear Channel has stopped handling advertising for the city, and there has been an almost complete turnover in the airport and city staff involved in the process.
The council held a working meeting on Sept. 12 to discuss a draft policy. During that meeting, Heidi Hansen, the economic vitality director, who oversees the promotion of the city’s businesses, said the policy is meant to promote tourism.
“Keep in mind that we want to have a welcoming and comfortable environment for our visitors,” she told the council.
The policy she outlined included prohibitions on tobacco and vaping, nudity, political ads, and firearms and ammunition, among others. Mr. Wilson pointed out that the firearms language included gun rentals.
He said this is proof that his business was being singled out since he is the only business in Flagstaff that offers gun rentals.
He said that was not the only issue with the proposed policy. He pointed out that the policy also prohibits “false and deceptive” ads.
Who Is The Arbiter?
“Who’s the arbiter of false and deceptive?” he asked.
A lobbyist for the Arizona Citizen’s Defense League warned the council this is not the first time this issue has come up in Arizona.
Michael Infanzon reminded the council of the 2013 case of Korwin vs. Phoenix. In that case, the Arizona Court of Appeals held that a firearms business in the City of Phoenix had the same First Amendment right to advertise on city bus shelters as any other business. Like the Phoenix case, Mr. Infanzon said the Timberland case has nothing to do with guns or violence.
“This is strictly a free speech issue,” Mr. Infanzon said. “This policy change imposes a viewpoint-based restriction on speech in a public forum which implicitly violates not only the First Amendment but Article 2 Section 6 of our state constitution.”
Mr. Wilson has turned to the Goldwater Institute, which was involved in the Phoenix case, for help. On its webpage the Goldwater Institute describes itself as “a free-market public policy research and litigation organization dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government, economic freedom, and individual liberty.”
John Thorpe, an attorney from the Goldwater Institute, warned Flagstaff City attorney Sterling Solomon in a letter dated Oct. 24, that the policy could result in litigation.
“The new policy currently under consideration is unconstitutional, both as applied to Mr. Wilson ... and on its face (as it bans broad, poorly-defined categories of speech and discriminates based on content and viewpoint),” Mr. Thorpe wrote.
Legal Fight Could Be Costly
At a Nov. 14 City Council meeting, Mr. Fincel denied any attempt to violate Mr. Wilson’s First Amendment rights. He said the city has a responsibility to oversee advertising on city property. And, under the law, it has the authority to do so.
He said the First Amendment doesn’t “allow all speech anywhere.” For example, he pointed out that the city can close certain areas to advertising altogether.
"We have to follow certain rules when we regulate content," Mr. Fincel said.
Mr. Wilson told The Epoch Times the dispute has had a severe impact on his bottom line.
“It absolutely has injured us as a business,” Mr. Wilson said. “We lost a significant portion of our potential customers throughout the summer when we weren’t able to advertise.”
During the Nov. 14 meeting, City Manager Greg Clifton recommended ending the advertising program. He said the ads don’t generate enough revenue to make a legal battle worth the effort and expense.
In his letter to the city attorney, Mr. Thorpe indicated that may be true.
“If we do not receive written assurance from the City that Mr. Wilson may continue to run his ads at the Airport, we will seek legal remedy,” Mr. Thorpe wrote.
“If we are forced to obtain relief in court, we will also seek costs and attorneys’ fees.”