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Ban on “Issue” Ads in DC Metro System Blocks Popular Advocacy Channel

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which has long allowed advocacy messages to be posted throughout its system, this week chose to ban all issue-related ads, rather than let an anti-Muslim group display cartoons of the prophet Muhammad on the city's trains, buses, and stations.

The many advocacy ads that line the sides of trains, buses, and Metro stations in Washington, DC, may be a thing of the past—at least for a while.

The controversial anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller appears to be the reason for the shift. On Thursday, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) announced that it would stop accepting “issue-oriented” ads for the rest of the year. The decision was seen as a response to an effort by Geller’s group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), to place an ad displaying a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims consider depictions of Muhammad to be blasphemous.

My view is, you put that ad up on the side of a bus, you turn that bus into a terrorism target.

Under current rules, WMATA would have been required to post the ad without respect to its content. But the transit authority determined that the ad could put riders at risk and decided to ban all “issue-oriented ads” to ensure public safety. WMATA opted for an across-the-board moratorium rather than face a potential free-speech lawsuit by AFDI.

“My view is, you put that ad up on the side of a bus, you turn that bus into a terrorism target,” a top WMATA official told The Washington Post under condition of anonymity. “I think it’s a very bad outcome for everybody. But it’s a risk we don’t want to put our passengers under.”

The WMATA decision comes less than a month after two gunmen attacked an ADFI exhibition of similar cartoons in Garland, Texas. The men were killed by police, and no attendees were injured. The cartoon in the ad was the winning entry in the contest that was held at the event.

AFDI made its name during the 2010 controversy over Park51, a planned Muslim community in New York City. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the organization a hate group had has labeled Geller an extremist.

An Important Advocacy Tool

WMATA’s ban on political and social ads throughout the transit system isn’t the first of its kind. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority banned political and religious ads in April to prevent posting ads with “hateful speech.” However, such a ban could have greater impact in Washington, DC, where associations, advocacy groups, and unions often use ads to promote their political views on trains and buses and at Metro stations, particularly those located near Capitol Hill.

“If you want to know who’s trying to get attention in the Washington lobbying world, here’s a trick: Check out the subway ads, especially at the Capitol South Metro station,” Politico noted in a feature posted earlier this week, highlighting a recent campaign by the Independent Community Bankers of America.

WMATA has had previous run-ins with AFDI. In 2012, another AFDI ad led the agency to begin including the following disclaimer on ads:

“This is a paid advertisement sponsored by [sponsor]. The advertising space is a designated public forum and does not imply WMATA’s endorsement of any views express[ed].”

WMATA will consider whether to continue the ban by the end of the year.

Advocacy campaigns like this one may not show up on Washington, DC-area Metro buses or trains anytime soon. (Public Notice Media/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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