ACLU enters battle over controversial bus ad in King County

This non-commercial advertisement, with the text
This non-commercial advertisement, with the text 'Israel War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars at Work,' is planned to be installed on 12 King County Metro Transit busses beginning Dec. 27. The ad is paid for by the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign. King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer feels the ad carries a hateful message and should not appear on Metro buses. At von Reichbauer's request, Metro Transit's advertising policies are under review.
— image credit: Courtesy of Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign's website

The ACLU has taken issue with a recent King County Metro Transit decision to restrict a controversial non-commercial advertisement concerning Israeli war crimes.

The advertisement, which was scheduled to be placed on the sides of 12 buses beginning Dec. 27, was paid for by the non-profit Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign. The ad shows a group of children gazing at the crumbled remains of a building. A message reading “Israeli War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars at Work” appears alongside the visual.

The ACLU of Washington contacted the county after King County Executive Dow Constantine had a change of heart concerning the advertisement. Constantine announced Dec. 20 that the ad would run, then went back on the statement. He announced Dec. 23 that Metro would not run the advertisement and was placing an interim moratorium on non-commercial advertising while staff reviewed the Israeli ad and Metro’s advertising policy.

The ACLU of Washington believes Constantine’s decision and the advertising ban both violate free speech rights.

“The fact that people may find an ad offensive and complain about it, in our society, is not a reason for the government not to run an ad,” said Doug Honig, spokesman for ACLU of Washington.

Honig said his office is in contact with King County officials and is urging the county to honor the contract it holds with the non-profit to run the Israeli advertisement, Honig said.

“We support (Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign’s) right to run the ads and we’re advocating for that with Metro,” he said.

The ACLU has not taken legal action against the county. ACLU representatives and King County officials will meet in person this week to discuss the advertisement and the agency’s policies, Honig said. The goal is to convince King County to reconsider running Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign’s message and to resist making changes to its non-commercial advertising policy.

“If Metro doesn’t reconsider, we could sue them, but at this point we’re trying to get them to reconsider,” Honig said.

Advertising policy

Linda Thielke, King County Metro Transit spokeswoman, said on Jan. 3 that her agency is still reviewing its advertising policies. Staff is researching other transit agencies’ guidelines as they apply to non-commercial advertising to decide what policies are best for King County Metro, she said. Findings and recommendations are expected at the end of the month.

The review was not previously planned; it was sparked by responses to the controversial advertising. The ad was pulled and the ban instilled after King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer, on Dec. 20, complained about the political message and requested the county review the ad and its non-commercial advertising guidelines. Following a local news station’s coverage of the Israeli advertising, von Reichbauer said he received many phone calls and e-mails expressing worry that the ad would stir anti-Semitic violence.

“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 at that time.

Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, on its website and through public statements, has said the advertisement was designed as an educational tool to make people aware that the U.S. government provides money to Israel, which spends the money creating a state favorable to Israelis by restricting Palestinians’ freedoms and engaging in war crimes. The campaign maintains the advertising is not anti-Semitic nor anti-Israeli.

Shortly following von Reichbauer’s request, Thielke said Metro Transit accepts all non-commercial advertising that fits within the agency’s guidelines. The guidelines restrict ads that feature alcohol, tobacco or adult entertainment and material that is insulting, degrading, offensive or, by contemporary community standards, could reasonably incite actions breaching public safety, peace and order.

“We’ve been advised by our attorneys that this isn’t against any of our guidelines,” Thielke said Dec. 20.

At that time, Thielke and Constantine both said that 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 that does not violate Metro’s policy.

“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,” Constantine said in a Dec. 20 prepared statement.

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