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How a $500 ticket turned into a larger fight over constitutional rights

March 8, 2018

Trish Page, full-time artist, part-time Uber driver, made an early morning run to Chicago O’Hare International Airport last January in the hopes of picking up a fare. What she got instead was a $500 ticket.

The violation had nothing to do with her driving. She got nabbed for her day job, and the advertisement affixed to her bright red Toyota RAV4’s driver-side door promoting her face painting business.

“When I’m not painting for a birthday party or other event it is really great to have this as a backup option to make the bills,” said Page, who has painted for a living since leaving an airline job in 2000.

Infographic about why Koch Industries is standing up for issues like free expression.

That morning at O’Hare now has her fighting to continue her side hustle. Page has joined a lawsuit launched by a Minneapolis startup Vugo challenging the 2014 Chicago ordinance that resulted in her fine as a violation of her constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection. Vugo, allows ride-share drivers to display news, ads and entertainment on a tablet for passengers – like taxicabs have done for years.

“There were a few things that the taxicab industry got in this ordinance, including this ban on advertising, which obviously seems aimed at giving the taxi industry a benefit that the ride-sharing industry doesn’t have,” said Jeffrey Schwab, an attorney at the Liberty Justice Center, who helped Page get her ticket dismissed, and is representing Vugo and Page in the larger lawsuit.  “At the time they passed it, there certainly wasn’t any justification for it that we could see.”

Nearly every taxicab in Chicago and elsewhere displays some form of advertising, either inside, outside, or both. However, under the 2014 city law permitting ride-share services like Uber and Lyft to operate, drivers cannot display advertising for any business inside or outside their vehicles.

“Disparities like this amount to the government deciding who can have free speech on a given issue and who must be silent,” said Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel of Koch Industries. “This case underscores a big reason why free speech matters—no matter what form it takes.”

Pull quote: Disparities like this amount to the government deciding who can have FREE SPEECH...and who must be SILENT."

The idea for Vugo began when co-founder James Bellefeuille, an Uber driver in Chicago, took a restaurant owner’s suggestion to carry menus in his car. Finding that passengers valued the information, Bellefeuille expanded the business to include digital advertising. He later chose to base its headquarters in Minneapolis because of the ad ban. 

In its motion to have a judge dismiss the case, Chicago cited three justifications: traffic safety, aesthetics and passenger comfort. However, Schwab said, those are all difficult to justify for a couple of reasons. For one, the ads cannot be a safety or aesthetic issue for only ride-share vehicles—and no others—on the road. Even if one were to take issue with the advertising itself, Schwab said there is a double standard when it comes to commercial versus non-commercial speech.

“If you had a sign on your Uber that said, ‘Eat at Joe’s,’ that would be illegal. But if it said, ‘Vote for Joe,’ that would be perfectly legal,” Schwab said.

Page was shaken by the incident. She has not returned to O’Hare for passengers since, and she vows to stay away from the pickup line unless the law changes.

“I’ll take somebody to the airport if the mood hits me. But I’m not gonna pick up at the airport,” Page said. “I’m not even gonna bother.”

Page rectified the situation by removing the offending sign and replacing it with a removable magnet. She also installed bright green rims, adorning her vehicle with flowers, butterflies, and other festive decorations. And while she now removes the advertisement from her door each time she fires up the Uber app, Page is adamant on this: There is no reason she should not be able to display her sign as she makes a few extra dollars driving around passengers.

A year later, she still can’t believe what happened that morning at O’Hare.

“Whoever makes a living thinking all that stuff up is just beyond me,” Page said.