updated 11/30/2004 5:15:12 PM ET 2004-11-30T22:15:12

A federal appeals court has ruled that Boston’s mass-transit agency violated free-speech rights by refusing to display advertisements from a group that wants to legalize marijuana.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority rejected three ads submitted by the group Change the Climate in 2000, claiming they encouraged children to smoke pot. The transit authority argued that it has the right to protect riders from offensive or illegal messages.

But the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found Monday that the MBTA, a quasi-government agency, does not have the right to turn down ads based on its viewpoint. Doing so violates the First Amendment, the court ruled.

“MBTA advertising space is literally a billboard for the expression of opinions to citizens at large. As a government agency, they shouldn’t have the right to pick and choose what opinions they allow to be advertised,” said Harvey Schwartz, an attorney for Change the Climate.

The ads at the center of the dispute question marijuana laws and penalties for people arrested on minor possession charges.

“I’ve got three great kids,” reads one ad. “I love them more than anything. I don’t want them to smoke pot. But I know jail is a lot more dangerous than smoking pot.”

A spokesman said the MBTA’s attorneys were reviewing the court’s ruling and had no immediate comment Tuesday.

The transit agency provides public transportation to approximately 1.2 million customers per day on subways, trains, buses and ferries. Up to 60,000 Boston public school students use the MBTA. The agency has about 40,000 advertising spaces.

Over the years, the agency has received numerous complaints from its riders about advertisements. In the five-year period before the lawsuit was filed by Change the Climate, the MBTA rejected at least 17 advertisements barred by its ad policy, including some depicting violence, profanity and tobacco products.

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