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King County pulls controversial bus ad that sends ‘message of hate’
UPDATE: King County Executive Dow Constantine, on Dec. 23, announced King County Metro Transit will not run a controversial advertisement referencing Israel that was planned to debut Dec. 27 on the side of 12 Metro buses.
Constantine cited the potential for disruption to transit services in making his decision. The advertisement that spurred the action was paid for by the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign. It read "Israeli War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars at Work."
Metro is also restricting new non-commercial ads, including ads planned in response to Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign's ad, on buses as Metro Transit's advertising policy is reviewed.
On Dec. 20, Metropolitan King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer called on Constantine and Metro Transit to re-evaluate whether the ad concerning Israel should run. He said he feared it could incite a hate crime. The issue has garnered much media attention since Dec. 20.
"The escalation of this issue from one of 12 local bus placards to a widespread and often vitriolic international debate introduces new and significant security concerns that compel reassessment," Constantine said in a press release.
A politically-charged advertisement set to be showcased on 12 King County Metro Transit buses is creating a stir.
The advertisement, paid for by the non-profit Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, depicts a group of children gazing at a pile of rubble. It reads "Israeli War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars at Work." On Monday, King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer, who represents District 7 and Federal Way, requested the review of Metro Transit's non-commercial advertising regulations as they apply to the ad. King County Metro is complying.
"This advertisement, in particular, needs to be reviewed in light of the fact that there are thousands of people in King County that are alarmed by this," von Reichbauer said.
The advertisement is scheduled to appear for about four weeks on buses operating mostly in Seattle. Installation begins Dec. 27, on the two-year anniversary of Israeli attacks on Gaza. The advertisement costs $2,760, of which $1,794 goes to Metro Transit, said Linda Thielke, King County Metro Transit spokeswoman.
The advertising makes clear it was paid for by the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign. It also includes a web address, www.Stop30Billion-Seattle.org. The site accuses the U.S. government of giving taxpayer money to Israel, which spends the money creating a state favorable to Israelis by restricting Palestinians' freedoms and engaging in war crimes.
The website claims the advertisement is an appeal for peace and equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians. A statement issued Monday by the non-profit reads: "Inspired by similar public advertising campaigns in Chicago, San Francisco, Albuquerque and other cities, the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign is launching the advertising campaign aimed at securing equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis, as well as an end to United States military aid to Israel, which continues at a time of economic crisis and severe budget cuts that have resulted in massive unemployment."
King 5 News broke the story about the advertisement on Dec. 17. Pete von Reichbauer said Monday that he had received more than 150 e-mails and calls regarding the ad since then. Many in the Jewish community are fearful the message will incite a hate crime similar to that seen in 2006 at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, where a man shot six women, killing one of them.
"They are scared to death," von Reichbauer said. "People have a right to feel safe in their community and feel safe in their homes."
The Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign maintains the advertising is not anti-Semitic nor anti-Israeli, and is designed to educate the public on the current state of Israel.
"There has been such one-sided support for Israel in this country for so long that any criticism of Israel seems shocking to some," campaign volunteer Ed Mast said in a news release, issued by the campaign on Wednesday. "For those who want to defend Israel right or wrong, anything that suggests Israel’s responsibility for the ongoing crisis will seem unreasonable."
Councilman von Reichbauer said a public bus is an inappropriate setting for this advertisement, which he referred to as a message of hate. He contends it violates Metro policies that restrict bus advertising that is "so objectionable under contemporary community standards as to be reasonably foreseeable that it will result in harm to, disruption of, or interference with the transportation system."
The ad, in von Reichbauer's opinion, also violates a Metro policy banning advertising that is directed at a specific person or group and is "insulting, degrading or offensive as to be reasonably foreseeable that it will incite or produce imminent lawless action in the form or retaliation, vandalism or other breach of public safety, peace and order."
"I don't want to see a public transportation system be a medium for the encouragement of any message of hate against any people," von Reichbauer said.
The councilman said he respects freedom of speech, but as a public agency, King County Metro Transit has an obligation to use good judgement in terms of the advertising that appears in public places.
"I'm a firm believer in the First Amendment, but with the First Amendment comes responsibility," he said.
Metro understands some parties may not agree with the advertisement. However, state and federal laws protect free speech, making it difficult for Metro to turn away non-commercial advertising if it fits within the agency's guidelines. Metro prohibits advertising that encompasses alcohol or tobacco use and adult entertainment, Thielke said. Other guidelines require that the material not be objectionable under contemporary community standards — or insulting, degrading or offensive to a degree that it will incite lawless action breaching public safety, peace and order.
Deciding which advertising fits this last criteria is tricky. Metro relies on the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office for help in determining what may be offensive, Thielke said. When there are questions about whether planned advertising meets Metro Transit's guidelines, attorneys review it for compliance, she said.
"We've been advised by our attorneys that this isn't against any of our guidelines," Thielke said.
This is not the first time an advertisement with a Middle East theme has appeared on Metro buses, she said. It's also not the first time someone, or a group of people, have taken offense to Metro advertising, she said.
"We all understand that individuals may find text or graphics used in advertising to be offensive or contrary to their own personal beliefs, but the appearance of any advertisement on a bus should never be construed as an endorsement by King County or Metro," Dow Constantine said in a prepared statement.
Thielke said Wednesday that Metro is continuing to review its policies and field phone calls, many of them from outside King County, about the advertisement.