The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit today against the City of Philadelphia for refusing to accept a billboard bringing attention to the number of prisoners held in the United States.

The billboard, which was to be posted at Philadelphia International Airport said:

"Welcome to America, home to 5% of the world's people & 25% of the world's prisoners. Let's build a better America together."

The lawsuit, filed in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, claims the city violated the NAACP's First Amendment rights.

A spokesman for Mayor Nutter declined comment.

"The city will respond through the legal process," said Nutter's press secretary, Mark McDonald.

The NAACP said the City claimed it could refuse the billboard because of a policy that rejects advocacy or issue advertisements.

Several other airports have also refused to post the NAACP sign for similar reasons.

"But Philadelphia is different because we found that Philadelphia International had placed other issue-oriented billboards," said Robert Rooks, National Criminal Justice director for the NAACP.

In the past, the aiport posted ads for the World Wildlife Federation, the national PTA, the USO, and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Rooks said.

And that is the crux of the lawsuit.

"The government cannot pick and choose which speech it deems acceptable and which it does not," said Chris Hansen, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project in a statement.

"The fact that the airport accepted some political issue ads but not the NAACP's shows the arbitrary nature of the city's unwritten and undefined policy. It is a clear violation of the First Amendment's prohibition against the government favoring some speakers over others."

The billboards are part of an NAACP campaign drawing attention to the link between high incarceration rates and poorly performing schools.

The statistics come from a report prepared by the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College in London. According to the Centre's most recent "World Prison Population List," The U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation: 756 per 100,000 of the population. Russia imprisons 629; Rwanda 604; and Cuba 531.

"That statistic is striking to read and see," said the NAACP's Rooks. "That's why we wanted to elevate it.

"We want to let people know that this country spends so much on locking people up when that money would be better used for the education system."

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or samwood@phillynews.com.

Follow the Inquirer at

and