Metro is basically a victim in a flap over a bus ad attacking Israeli actions:

[Monday] afternoon, King County Executive Dow Constantine ordered a review of KC Metro’s policies concerning non-commercial bus advertisements, in response to controversial posters advertising “Israeli War Crimes,” which are slated to appear on 12 King County buses on December 27th and run for a full month.

Earlier [Monday], King County Council member Peter von Reichbauer claimed that the ads, purchased for $1,794 by the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, could incite anti-Semitic violence. Interestingly enough, Constantine takes a different approach—he makes the argument that the ads are wasting more time and money than they’re worth…

KC Metro spokeswoman Linda Thielke confirms that metro staffers have been swamped fielding calls and emails… We’re entering into holiday week, with reduced services and our customer information people can’t even field those calls, they’re talking to people from Las Vegas and Australia about this issue instead.

As ever, generating a stink about it has generated far more attention than the ad itself could ever have created. The conflict over Israel and Palestine is way beyond our subject area, but the violence argument is a pretty heroic stretch to find an excuse to censor this ad.

Constantine’s concern is at least practical, although it’s distressing that a few motivated callers might get a veto on what ads Metro displays.

And if your feelings on this issue are driven by the underlying dispute, note that a reciprocal ad is going onto buses in response.

Comment warning: the merits of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and truth of the accusation of “war crimes” are off-topic for this thread.

51 Replies to “The Israel Ad Flap”

    1. The policies are verbatimed in several of the articles quoting Constantine (for which most of the article would be off-topic, so I won’t link).

      No selling alcohol, tobacco, or adult entertainment. No hate speech (listing categories) or incitement of violence.

      Any debate over whether the original ads crossed that line can be had on other blogs.

      1. If I were to tweek the rules sumerised above, I would add no political or judicial campaigns
        Yes this may hurt ad revenu in october and november, but it would stop Timmy from using the Transit system to destroy the transit system

      2. Political speech will continue to have as high a level of protection as any other form of ad. Unless all ads are banned, the courts will protect the right of candidates to buy ads at the same price as others buying ad space. I’m less familiar with case law regarding issue campaigns.

  1. The counter ads are not coming from any local group. They are coming from Stop Islamization of America.

    As a matter of equity, I support letting these ads run, too, but I’m hoping people here have ideas on how to keep Metro’s ad program from becoming the fatality in this debate. When Dow says it’s a small amount of money, I don’t know if he is just ducking for cover. But in this day and age, we need the money, and we need it from all who want to convey a tasteful message, even if they aren’t candidates or businesses.

    Thanks, Martin, for making the debate of Israel vs. Palestine off-topic here. I’m glad those of us trying to debate the ad policy have at least one safe space to debate it civilly, rather than trying to get a word in edgewise in the middle of that food fight.

    1. Aha! If ads are required to be sponsored by a registered voter or registered business in King County, then outside groups who have no skin in the game (so to speak) will have to go fishing for someone who lives here to sponsor the ad. That might cut off some of the most bizarre ads. We’d probably be doing these outside groups a favor by sparing them the embarrassment of their ads clashing hysterically with our culture.

    2. $1800 really is a tiny amount of money, and for once, Dow’s analysis is right on the nose: The group spends a pittance on the ad buy, then wrings incalculable free publicity out of the controversy. Metro gets stuck fielding the complaints

      Total lose-lose for Metro, though there may be (legally) nothing they can do about it.

      If their on-vehicle advertising program were more robust in general, the crazy ads would get lost in a sea of more reasonable ones. Unfortunately, advertisers wish to target choice consumers, and Metro’s operations do everything possible to discourage choice consumers from riding. So many of Metro’s ancillary problems follow from that…

  2. I’m generally pro free speech and anti censorship, but this sounds like a mess, and the practical costs to the agency should be a factor in limiting ads which should be a source of revenue, not costs.

    I’m not sure whether a ban on religous ads is necessary or would cover these ads, but if it is possible to write a reasonably objective definition of hate speech and ban those ads, that would be appropriate. I don’t think a requirement for a local sponsor would be enough to ban ads like this.

    But why do ads for alcohol have to be banned? That seems awfully moralistic. The state is in the business of selling alcohol, so why can’t Metro benefit from advertising dollars? I’m more sympathetic with the ban on tobacco ads and adult services, but are we so puritanical that we don’t allow a beer or vodka ad?

    1. That’s a clever point about alcohol advertising bans, and illustrates the double-standard of the whole state-controlled system: the state wants people not to buy alcohol, but is in the business of doing the very business it hopes to restrict. (What an awful business model. But I digress.)

      Beyond advertising the stores themselves (not necessarily a bad idea), there’s all kinds of conflict-of-interest and public endorsement concerns if the state began running ads on behalf of specific brands. (Or it could buy the bus ad space, then contract it out to manufacturers and ignore those concerns entirely: “Buy ____ Vodka! Now on sale at WS Liquor Stores!”)

    2. Alcohol ads are most likely banned because children ride the bus and would see the ads even from the street.

      1. Children are already surrounded by ads for products they shouldn’t be consuming — alcohol billboards are everywhere, and every other taxi is advertising a strip club.

      2. “What about the kids??!!” is a bad way of saying it, because you run the risk of extending this argument out to things that should be advertised on transit but would be excluded by that argument.

        You’ve got to base it this way: age-restricted products cannot be advertised on public transportation.

    3. Couldn’t we just create a rule to require that ads be either (a) selling a commercial product or (b) be public-service messages sponsored by a public entity or the Ad Council. This would also exclude many good causes like the Red Cross etc., which sucks, but I don’t see how you can write a rule that includes those causes and excludes ginned-up controversies like this one while still passing constitutional muster.

      1. Even if legal, limiting free speech to be just for corporations sucks. Pass it on.

        But, upon further reflection, I think the county could pass a rule excluding candidates for county council and executive from buying ads on county property, to avoid the conflict of interest in setting ad rates.

      2. This is only a free speech issue to the extent that it’s tricky to craft a rule that passes constitutional muster while avoiding this kind of controversy. There are many other avenues that non-profits and political groups have to express their views that don’t cause headaches for the county.

  3. Free speech is a foundational principle of this country, and its protections are extended to all messages from all people regardless of how egregious or disrespectful the messages may be. (Duh, thanks.)

    However, advertising space is a purchased service, and Metro most certainly has the right to reject what it runs. Ad censorship is a dangerous thing, but limiting “hate speech” (for which a definition or a reference to one must surely exist somewhere in a Metro policy book – I have a hard time believing otherwise) is one of few acceptable forms of it. (Full disclosure – I’m Jewish.) Advocating political awareness is a touchy subject, but if Metro has any qualms about setting off violence, it is well within its rights to halt the campaign and refund the group’s money. Metro may be a public agency, but their public role is to provide bus service. Providing public advertising space is not a required service, it just helps generate a bit of extra revenue. (Metro will come under fire regardless of how this plays out – damned if they do, damned if they don’t.)

  4. No more courtesy for busses having these anti Isaraeli signs.I’m hoping all Jews and Christians stop riding Metro till these adds are taken off by our [ad-hominem] Metro and King County.

  5. Seems like there’s a middle ground where they can accept the advertiser but limit the content of the ad – kind of like how KUOW limits the content of their sponsorship messages.

    Frankly I find “bus wrap” more offensive personally.

  6. Amazingly short-sided to start, why the heck is someone getting paid to even approve an ad campaign like this in the first place?

    Constantine is right, he has to deal with malcontent staff who clearly either refuse to recognize the possible implications of this( or worse, relish the idea), or are literally so stupid that they just rubber stamp any dumb idea that gives to the bottom line.


    Why are WE paying for someone who approved this? Clearly this person needs to be out on the streets getting a grip on what the overall public thinks.

    Oh yeah, I forgot. They’re already getting paid to mess up the next ad campaign we will have to fix…..

    Doesn’t matter what group, it’s not good PR. An earlier poster said it, there is some really [ad-hominem] people workin’ up there……

  7. [off-topic] And seeing how the primary mission of any transportation system is safety, allowing highly emotionally-charged ads runs counter to that mission. And while it’s true, the chances any violence will occur from this ad campaign, can the same be said if Metro simply allowed a drawing of the Prophet Mohammed to be placed on bus ads?

  8. Besides, you are responding to a point I wasn’t making. I was making a point that the primary mission of transit agencies is safety, and the question must be asked, where do we draw the line between free speech, and ads that could invite violence?

    Is an ad with a drawing of the Prophet Mohammed free speech? Should it be allowed? Of course it shouldn’t. It would incite violence. So where does a transit agency draw the line?

    1. How can anyone even argue with your point? Heck, I feel like an idiot for not even thinking about that.

      This makes the case even stronger in my opinion that A HIGH LEVEL EXEC should get his/her butt canned, and thrown into the streets for good measure. If they are going to emphasize safety all the time to the public while we’re riders aboard a KC Metro bus, then this is clearly a double standard on their part and justice should be merited out accordingly.

      Guarantee one thing, fire an Metro executive (or two) and then things will change. Otherwise its the small guys who get all the garbage to deal with.

      Typical waste of our money. I can’t stand the Tea Party, but if anyone here has half a clue they’ll understand why it’s so popular.

      1. Oh, another thing. A total crock calling Metro the victim. They are responsible for this in the end, period. Why can’t this blog recognize that?!

        Amazing, simply amazing…..So I guess if I get beat up aboard a Metro bus, then the other guy is the victim?

      1. If this were truly a debate about the first amendment and not the issue, there would not be an Israeli flag as preface.

      2. I think you’re reading too much into the way pictures are selected to run with posts.

        At any rate, the other choice would be to duplicate the ad.

      3. I think someone is thinking way too little about what pictures to run. Other choices? How about a picture of the constitution?

  9. Accept ads for goods and services only. The transit riding public is a captive audience – it’s inappropriate to subject them to political controversy.

    Protect the first amendment – ban by topic, not content.

    1. I think it’s important to note that external bus ads are not targeted at “the transit riding public”, but the public at large.

    2. Some commercial and political ads are even more controversial than the Israel one. The Limbaugh and Eyman ads are a clear example. Imagine the fuss there would be over a David Duke for President ad.

      It’s banning by controversiality that’ll get the county in trouble.

      If Ed Mast ran for Congress, and used the website in the Israel ad as his campaign website, then he’d have an easy end-run around the topic rule, and be guaranteed the lowest rate.

      I find the commercial ads to be counter to our efforts to save the planet from global warming, etc. I just don’t organize a phone bank to harass Customer Service or county council members about it. Controversiality is in the eye of the beholder.

      I think riders will handle the ads just fine. But I sure wish certain groups would leave Customer Service alone.

      (And, seriously now, anyone calling for a boycott of the bus system wasn’t using it anyway.)

  10. Metro should outsource control of ads on its buses to a private company like JCDecaux (if possible.) That way, the private company could pick and choose the ads as much as it wanted and Metro wouldn’t have to deal with this sort of mess.

    1. I believe Metro already has a contract with ClearChannel to handle advertising. Frankly, I wish they had contracts with multiple subcontractors to pressure them to maximize revenue. The one-contractor system is too prone to campaign kickbacks.

    2. JCDecaux runs the bus shelters in Chicago and does I think a very good job. I think the CTA does have some veto authority though.

      On a different tangent, I’d like Sound Transit to find a way to get WI-FI in the tunnels and on trains sponsored if appropriate. Maybe Google or Amazon could do that.

    1. How about we raise the rates for any organization or individual who has ever supported a Republican candidate? Or supported ending genocide in Darfur? Or eaten cheese?

      1. Well, the idea is not punishment, but a kind of reparation for “combat” pay because the organization will have to fend off all criticism and mount PR to defend itself…hence, the additional costs are justified.

        As far as other organizations…why not…if there is increased costs, potential damage to reputation, security requirements…then that cost should be passed back to the client.

  11. Here’s my problem with doing foreign policy on the sides of buses:

    [off-topic: merits of the ad]

    I don’t think either picture will start a war, either in the Middle East or the Metro service area. But it’s completely impossible that either picture will do a thing to stop one- which is really the issue at hand.

    Here’s what I’m telling the King County Council. Every person and group with an opinion on this particular issue gets advertising space with their name and logo under the following message: “Write your congressman about U.S. policy in the Middle East- after you get the facts from your local public library. Hours and locations online.”

    Just please don’t put it on any bus windows. Talk about mindless terrorism!

    Mark Dublin

  12. Here’s one thing.

    If Metro (or any organization) accepts ANY ads according to its stated policies, it has legal protection against any problems caused by the ads.

    If, on the other hand, it discriminates and only accepts ads which meet the “approval” of officials at Metro, then it suddenly becomes legally liable for the content of ALL ads.

    There is logic to this legal situation.

    It means, either accept ads satsifying your rules on a first-come first-serve basis, or just don’t take ads at all. And it’s very hard to prohibit religious or political ads, for First Amendment reasons — either prohibition would probably cause you to be classified as making value judgements and open you to liability.

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