Metro was wrong to reject a bus ad that was critical of Israel.

Yesterday, they decided to reject an ad, initially approved to run on 12 Metro buses late this month, from a group called Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign. The ad copy—"Israeli War Crimes/Your Tax Dollars at Work"—was certainly dramatic and debatable, but it didn't cross the line from legit political advertising into the supposed world of irresponsible speech that caused King County Executive Dow Constantine to cancel the ad. (Proposed histrionic counter ads, including ads equating Palestinians with Hitler and ads from conservative activist David Horowitz showing an Israeli bus in flames, forced the issue.)

Constantine said in a statement:
Metro’s existing policy restricts advertising that can be reasonably foreseen to result in harm to, disruption of, or interference with the transportation system. Given the dramatic escalation of debate in the past few days over these proposed ads, and the submission of inflammatory response ads, there is now an unacceptable risk of harm to or disruption of service to our customers should these ads run.

Constantine has also taken the extra step of temporarily suspending Metro's current policy of accepting "cause" or "non-commercial ads"—which include United Way ads, candidate ads, and yes, ads hating on Israel—to review the rules.

The debate over Israeli policy is a mainstream, front-page debate, and has been for the last half century. The anti-Israel sound bite about U.S. tax dollars—it's $3 billion a year—is a standard argument that people who oppose Israel's military policies have made for years. The fact that an anti-Israel group wants to get that basic message out shouldn't be a big deal.

Yes, the message is complicated by the fact that Israel is directly tied to Jews, and so there is an anti-Semitic edge to the ad. And today's toxic response from Voice of Palestine, a group that supports the ad—"we know how powerful and aggressive the bullying by right-wing Jewish groups and their special-interest friends can be"— (oy vey) confirms how juvenile and toxic this issue is. (In fairness, the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign's own response today was more measured.) But the fact is this: Israel is a nation, a political entity, and so it's fair game for a political campaign.

The fact that political debates are complicated shouldn't be used as an excuse to shut down free speech. (More complications: The U.S. government is also a major financial supporter of the Palestinians.)

An ad criticizing Saudi Arabia for channeling money to terrorists (thanks Wikileaks), for example, would surely stir fears among Arab-Americans. But the same complicating factor—Saudi Arabia is a political state—would be at play, and would make the ad legit despite the unease.

I can't imagine that a review of the policy will justify yesterday's ruling against free speech, which certainly makes it feel like the county is going to a lot of effort to stop the anti-Israel ad from running.

The rules are pretty clear. Constantine acknowledged:
Our state and federal constitutions protect speech, including unpopular speech, and limit a government's ability to regulate advertising content.

As a government agency, Metro Transit is more constrained than a private party, like a newspaper or TV station, in its ability to reject a particular advertisement. 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 endorsement of, or value judgment on, the message being advertised.

Having accepted non-commercial advertising generally since 1973, our attorneys have repeatedly advised that Metro is legally constrained in its ability to accept or reject an advertisement based on the identity of the group purchasing the advertising, or the message.

Not accepting "cause" ads, as Erica first reported, could cost the county almost half-a-million dollars a year.
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