Amid Threats, Pulling Anti-Israel Ads Was OK

     SEATTLE (CN) – A federal judge ruled that municipal buses do not have to display a paid advertisement critical of Israel as public outcry has prompted concerns of “violence and disruption.”

     Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign planned to run an educational advertisement about the Israel-Palestine conflict on buses in King County, Washington. The county and its advertising contractor, Titan Outdoor, approved the proposed ad, which read, “Israeli War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars at Work,” and featured a picture of children next to a bomb-damaged building.
     About a week before the month-long campaign was scheduled to run in December 2010, local media caught wind of the ads and negative public comments poured in.
     Aside from comments that simply disapproved of the campaign’s message or expressed concern for rider safety, eight comments suggested intent to disrupt the buses or commit violence.
     One message, in all capital letters and with some punctuation errors, read: “So help me God, I better not see one of those ads on a bus. I might not be able to control myself. I’m not sure. Seattle = Nazis.”
     The county executive quickly pulled the ads, so the nonprofit behind the campaign, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Richard Jones denied the groups’ request for preliminary injunction, finding that the county’s conduct was reasonable.
     “The threats of violence and disruption from members of the public (in the form of e-mails, phone calls and anonymous photographs) led bus drivers and law-enforcement officials to express safety concerns, and the court finds that it was reasonable for King County to rely on that evidence to apply the Contract exceptions,” Jones wrote.
     The 18-page ruling states that the advertising space on the exterior of King County buses is a “limited public forum,” not a “designated public forum.” Restricting advertisements in that medium is not a violation of the First Amendment, Jones found.
     “Because King County’s policy and practice indicates that it consistently applied content restrictions on advertising to further its purpose of using its property to provide orderly and safe public transportation, the forum at issue is a limited public forum,” the ruling states.
     Jones added that the nonprofits failed to show irreparable harm. “Presumably, there are many other forums available for displaying plaintiff’s message, as the plaintiff noted itself,” according to the ruling.

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