Flagstaff denied this gun store owner's ad. Now the city may stop all airport advertising

By Michel Marizco
Published: Thursday, November 16, 2023 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, November 16, 2023 - 7:15am

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a sign for the Flagstaff Airport
Tim Agne
The Flagstaff Airport.

Flagstaff's City Council may end advertising at its airport after a libertarian thinktank threatened a lawsuit alleging the city violated the First Amendment rights of the owner of a northern Arizona shooting range and gun rental business.

At issue is a 10-second video that opens with “let’s go shooting in Flagstaff at Timberline Firearms." It depicts four smiling young people holding rifles; then cuts away to owner Rob Wilson supervising as one of them opens fire on a target.

"I don’t think Timberline was denied the ability to run an ad at the airport," said Deputy City Attorney Kevin Fincel to Flagstaff City Council on Tuesday night.

The city says Wilson first paid to run his ad as a series of photos for four weeks in 2019 at its Pulliam Airport. Wilson paid the city’s vendor at the time, Clear Channel, $400 for that. Now, Wilson wants to run the video.

Airports aren't public forums, city says

Sign for gun store outside of its building
Michel Marizco/KJZZ
Timberline Firearms and Training on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

But city officials claimed it violated its advertising policy by showing depictions of violence or anti-social behavior.

The Goldwater Institute has taken up his cause, accusing Flagstaff of censorship.

Fincel said that’s not true, and that city staff tried to work with Wilson on an acceptable ad.

"Again," he said, "I think Timberline wanted to run a certain ad at the airport. That staff took issue with and wanted to discuss and possibly edit. Timberline, and they have every right to, wanted to stick to the ad they produced. Wanted to have that ad run. And that’s the ad that was going to run. But I don’t think that means Timberline was denied the ability to advertise at our airport."

He told the council that some areas of the city, like parks or sidewalks, could be considered open public forums. But not necessarily airports.

"We consider our airport our facilities, the airport, recreation facilities, to be non-public forums," he said.

'The forum needs to be closed'

Flagstaff City Hall
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
Flagstaff City Hall on July 13, 2021.

The city drafted a new advertisement policy in September. It bars ads for the sale or use of firearms.

But now, under the threat of a lawsuit by the Goldwater Institute, Councilmember Lori Matthews said Flagstaff may get out of the advertising business at the airport altogether.

"I just get a little concerned about people’s interpretation what may be offensive or depiction of something, so I’m kind of swaying of just opt out of any advertising at the airport," she said.

That way, the city's "not having these discussions every time there’s something we didn’t think about."

Flagstaff City Manager Greg Clifton agreed.

"The forum needs to be closed. The advertisement at the airport along with the advertisement at some of our recreational facilities is not a big generator. We’re talking maybe tens of thousands of dollars annually."

A rate sheet shared with KJZZ shows that the city sells a 15-second ad on four displays at the airport for $150. A 1-minute video costs $750 a month.

Flagstaff Mayor Becky Daggett is also on board with ending the advertisements.

"I would support not having an open forum in terms of advertising," she told the council.

Final decision pending

Flagstaff Arizona sign Fort Valley Road
Tim Agne/KJZZ
A welcome sign along Fort Valley Road on the north side of Flagstaff.

As for Wilson, he says he’s disappointed at what he presumes is the inevitable decision at stake.

"Wish I could say I was surprised," Wilson said. "But I was mostly just disappointed that rather than continue to uphold their oath to protect and preserve the Constitution, and the rights that it provides to us, they instead chose to stop all advertising, which to me seems very myopic."

At least for now, the city is still accepting advertising at the airport.

The matter isn’t over; and neither is the Goldwater Institute’s threat to sue over Wilson’s case.

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