ACLU sues King County over controversial bus ad ban

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by MEG COYLE / KING 5 News

NWCN.com

Posted on January 19, 2011 at 1:06 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 19 at 6:20 PM

SEATTLE -- The American Civil Liberties Union is taking King County to court over its refusal to post controversial bus ads criticizing the Israeli government.

KING 5 News first broke the story that the ads reading, "Israeli war crimes, your tax dollars at work," were set to appear on 12 Metro buses. That set the stage for a showdown where the county ultimately backed down. 

This wouldn't be Metro's first time running controversial ads. You might remember the one that ran last Christmas, "Yes Virginia, there is no God."  The ad for the "Bodies" exhibit at Pacific Science Center was controversial, even "Save Gaza," in 2009. None of those ads elicited much of a response. This one did.

If the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign's goal was to raise awareness about its cause, it succeeded. Just about everyone knows about the ad and its now infamous slogan. Not because they saw it on the side of a bus, but because they didn't.

"We still don't know who informed the press," says Ed Mast with the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign. Word got out, before the signs came out.  "The local media exposure, of course, quickly created a media controversy about the ads."

King County, citing security concerns, opted not to run the ads. That, says the ACLU, violates the First Amendment right to free speech.

"If every time we have a concern that some speech is going to cause some kind of problem, we might as well all just shut up right now," says ACLU of Washington's Executive Director, Kathleen Taylor.

Several bus drivers have told us they feared they could be targeted in the backlash. Many in the Jewish community were appalled, some even proposed their own counter ad, "Palestinian war crimes, your tax dollars at work."

The county insists its decision wasn't about politics, it was about public safety.

"Metro sells ads to raise revenues to provide transit services. And the response to the ad created a foreseeable risk," says Frank Abe, Communications Director for King County.

"This is not violent rhetoric. This is a political statement," counters Taylor.

And now the ACLU and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign hope to make a statement. Only this time, to defend what they say is their first amendment right.

"That's the policy. That's the platform. And once it's there, it needs to be open. That's what the First Amendment says," says ACLU attorney Jeffrey Grant.

The Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign wants the ad published, as originally intended.  A court hearing on the matter is expected in the next two to three weeks.

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