Lehman v. City of Shaker Heights

418 U.S. 298 (1974)

Quick Summary

Lehman (plaintiff) challenged the City of Shaker Heights’ (defendant) refusal to sell him advertising space for his political campaign on city-operated transit vehicles. The City maintained a longstanding policy against political advertisements on its system. Lehman contended this policy violated his constitutional rights.

After lower courts denied relief, the issue presented to the United States Supreme Court was whether this policy infringed upon Lehman’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the city’s policy, concluding that it did not violate constitutional protections.

Facts of the Case

Harry J. Lehman (plaintiff) was a candidate for the office of State Representative to the Ohio General Assembly for District 56, which encompasses the city of Shaker Heights. Lehman sought to promote his candidacy by purchasing advertising space on the public transit vehicles operated by the City of Shaker Heights (defendant). However, the city had a policy against selling space for political advertisements on its transit system.

Lehman challenged this policy in court, asserting that his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were being violated. Metromedia, Inc., the exclusive agent managing advertising space for the city’s transit system, rejected Lehman’s application due to this policy.

Despite this rejection, the transit system did accept advertisements from various commercial entities, indicating that space was available for use by non-political advertisers. The policy in question had been in place for over two decades, with the city council’s support, and had consistently excluded political or public issue advertising from its vehicles.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Lehman filed suit in Ohio state court.
  2. The trial court denied relief to Lehman.
  3. The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.
  4. Lehman appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether a city-operated public transit system that sells advertising space is constitutionally required to accept paid political advertising on behalf of a candidate for public office.

Rule of Law

The government may place reasonable restrictions on speech in public forums to serve significant government interests, provided that these restrictions are content-neutral and narrowly tailored.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court reasoned that a city-operated transit system is not a traditional public forum like streets or parks. Instead, it is a commercial venture providing public transportation services. The city has the discretion to choose what type of advertising it allows on its vehicles, similar to how a private newspaper can select which advertisements it publishes.

The Court found that the decision to exclude political ads was not arbitrary or invidious but rather a reasonable administrative choice to avoid controversial advertising and maintain a neutral atmosphere in a captive setting.

The Court also highlighted that requiring the transit system to display political ads could lead to administrative difficulties, favoritism concerns, and discomfort for passengers who are a captive audience. Thus, the city’s policy of excluding political ads from its transit vehicles was deemed a permissible exercise of its managerial discretion and not a violation of the First or Fourteenth Amendments.


The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Ohio Supreme Court, upholding the city’s policy of not accepting political advertisements on its transit system’s vehicles.

Concurring Opinions

Justice Douglas concurred in the judgment, emphasizing the rights of commuters to be free from forced intrusions on their privacy. He likened the transit system to a newspaper, suggesting that just as a newspaper cannot be compelled to publish certain content, a public transit system should not be required to display political advertisements against its policies.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Brennan, joined by Justices Stewart, Marshall, and Powell, dissented. They argued that by accepting commercial and public service advertisements, the city had created a public forum and could not discriminate based on the content of the messages. They believed that refusing political ads constituted impermissible content-based discrimination inconsistent with First Amendment principles.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Supreme Court held that government-operated transit systems are not traditional public forums and therefore can exclude political advertisements.
  2. The Court found that cities have discretion in managing commercial ventures, including advertising practices on public transportation.
  3. Excluding political ads from public transit vehicles is allowed if the exclusion serves reasonable administrative purposes and is not based on arbitrary or invidious discrimination.

Relevant FAQs of this case

Can a government entity restrict speech in a non-public forum, and what criteria must be met to do so?

A government entity can impose restrictions on speech in non-public forums such as public transit systems or government offices. The criteria for these restrictions must be reasonable and viewpoint neutral, serving a legitimate governmental interest without suppressing the expression more than is necessary.

  • For example: A city’s policy prohibiting all advocacy advertisements in its municipal buildings, aiming to prevent controversy and maintain a professional atmosphere, would likely be permissible if applied uniformly regardless of viewpoint.

When does content-neutral regulation of speech become impermissible under the First Amendment?

Content-neutral regulations become impermissible when they are not narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, or when they leave open insufficient alternative channels for communication of the information.

  • For example: A town’s ordinance that bans all outdoor advertising could be struck down if it is too broad, not leaving reasonable alternatives for businesses to communicate their messages.

How does the captive audience doctrine affect the balance between free speech rights and the public's interest in avoiding unwanted communication?

The captive audience doctrine allows the government to restrict speech to protect persons from unwanted communication in situations where they are unable to avoid it, such as in public transportation or inside their own homes. The key is that restrictions must be justified without infringing more than necessary on the speaker’s rights.

  • For example: Prohibiting loud political campaigning outside residential buildings late at night would likely be valid, balancing residents’ rights to peace against campaigners’ free speech rights.


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