Mideast War Erupts On Seattle Bus Ads

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After a two-year truce, a new front has opened in the conflict between Palestinians and Israel. Fortunately, it’s confined to Seattle county bus posters and it’s only a war of words, according to a July 19 MCT report.

The first shot

It all started in December, 2010, when an organization calling itself the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign (SeaMAC for short) placed an “ad alleging Israeli war crimes” on King County Metro buses. “[A]fter widespread public objections,” the report says, Metro removed the ad, as “a response to threats of violence and disruption of bus service.” The report doesn’t specify which side the threats came from.

A sort-of truce

In subsequent litigation, US District Court Judge Richard Jones approved the ban on public safety grounds, the threats posing an imminent danger.

His decision is still under review by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but meanwhile, just to play it safe and be even-handed, Metro banned from the insides and outsides of their buses all advertising that wasn’t strictly product- or service-oriented and commercial.

That ban stood for almost five months, when a new policy allowed public-service ads from nonprofit groups, but kept the ban on ads from political parties and candidates, along with ads which expressed views “on matters of public debate about economic, political, religious or social issues,” according to County Executive Dow Constantine.

This ban barred such innocuous messages as “Buy American” and shop locally, both of which were “economic” – until a Seattle Times story forced Metro to reclassify the ads as promoting purchases, which was okay, as opposed to expressing an opinion, which wasn’t.

Of course, the ban and its partial rescisions both ignored a little thing called the Citizens United case, in which, in June, 2009, the US Supreme Court  ruled that corporations (both for-profit and nonprofit) and unions enjoyed the same First Amendment rights to free speech as flesh-and-blood citizens.

So in January, 2012, “we took a look at the legal parameters and we looked at the national best [advertising] practices,” according to Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer, and Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond quietly signed a new policy allowing political ads to return to Seattle bus advertising – so long as the ads were free from false or misleading statements, demeaning or disparaging content, and – oh, yes – disruptive of bus service.

Fighting resumes

This led SeaMAC to spring into action with verbal guns blazing, running “Equal Rights for Palestinians” ads on the outsides of 12 Seattle and Bellevue buses and resizes inside several more. But in something of a tactical retreat from their 2010 war-crimes accusations, this year’s bus ads just claim that “Equality for Palestinians” is “The Way to Peace.”

And now, an organization called American Freedom Defense Initiative is counterattacking. Their campaign, which will run for four months on six Bellevue buses, calls for “Equal Rights for Jews” and quotes a Palestinian Authority statement “Calling for a Jew-free state.”

The two campaigns are eerily similar (maybe as a form of that military tactic called camouflage). Except for one word, the tag lines are identical. Both feature what looks like the same background, in the same lighting, with the camera shooting from a slightly different spot. Both lead with white type in what looks like the same font and size. Both have subheads set in a smaller size and both in a shade of yellow. And both have their logos in the same position, though the AFDI’s is larger.

The war of words isn’t confined to ads, either.

SeaMac spokesman Ed Mast called AFDI an anti-Muslim hate group and accused it of misrepresenting the PA’s position by quoting it – obviously  a “false, distorted, made-up accusation.” Also obviously different from SeaMAC’s earlier “fact-based, well- documented” war-crimes ad – as if facts or documentation could substantiate as vague and bland a claim as “The Way to Peace.”

AFDI President Pamela Geller fired back, emailing that the county demanded “abundant documentation” of AFDI’s ad content and that they accepted the ad only under threat of lawsuit. “[SeaMAC] smear us as ‘hateful’ because they cannot refute what we say,” she concluded. AFDI’s lawyer also claimed that Metro refused the ad multiple times before finally accepting it. Metro spokesman Switzer denies this. And, at the risk of being repetitive, apparently unequal demands for documentation may result from one campaign being vague and bland while the other’s very specific.

Neither side wins (but two others do)

In a shooting war, there’s at most one winner. But in the Seattle bus system war of words, there are two:

Metro’s $5 million advertising bottom line.

And the First Amendment.

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