SEATTLE (CN) – The ACLU plans to challenge a federal ruling that approved a county decision to pull bus ads critical of Israel’s policies. Opponents of the ads had threatened, “You want war against the Jewish people? You got it.”
The ACLU argued in federal court that the First Amendment guaranteed the right of political activists who bought ad space on local buses calling Israel’s actions in Gaza “war crimes.” After receiving a number of complaints, officials for King County reversed their approval of the ads and refused to put them up, claiming it was to protect the bus service.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones ruled in favor of King County, saying the ads were properly pulled in light of public safety concerns.
Last October the non-profit Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign proposed advertisements that would run on the city’s Metro buses to commemorate the two-year anniversary of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. The proposed ad showed a picture of children next to a bombed-out building with the text “Israeli War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars at Work.”
The ad was approved by the County Department of Transportation and was set to run on twelve buses for four weeks between December 2010 and January 2011.
The local media reported about the ads ten days before they were scheduled to run, and King County said it received a number of negative phone calls and emails from the public in opposition to the ads’ run.
“I am a law-abiding citizen that would have no qualms defacing the message if given the opportunity,” one such message said, according to King County’s motion opposing the plaintiff’s move for an injunction.
“You want WAR against the Jewish people??? YOU GOT IT!” another message said.
In total, King County said eight of the messages they received either suggested threats to vandalize buses or act violently, and twenty expressed concern for rider safety.
Almost a week before the controversial ads were set to run, two other groups submitted pro-Israeli counter-ads. One of the ads showed a burning bus with the text “Palestinian War Crimes- Your Tax Dollars at Work” and another showed Muslim people with Nazi flags.
In response to the uproar on both sides, King County Executive Dow Constantine did not allow either the ads or counter-ads to be displayed on the buses, saying “service disruptions, civil disobedience, and lawless and violent actions had become reasonably foreseeable.”
The Mideast Awareness Campaign sued in federal court in January, asking for an injunction against King County, which was refused. The county moved for summary judgment, which was granted late last week.
“The court recognizes its responsibility to safeguard the freedoms protected by our Constitution, and the court is equally mindful of its obligation to protect free expression of speech, including speech that is disfavored or unpopular,” Judge Jones wrote.
“But in light of the totality of circumstances of this case, the court concludes that King County’s decision to reject the SeaMAC advertisement was a viewpoint-neutral and reasonable restriction in a limited public forum,” the judge continued.
In the wake of the ruling, a spokesman for the ACLU said Tuesday that the decision will be challenged in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. “The people of Seattle don’t need to be protected from these ads,” said Doug Honig for the ACLU of Washington.
The lawyers for King County, Endel Kolde and Jennifer Ritchie from the district attorney’s office, did not answer a call for comment. Nor did ACLU lawyers Sarah Dunne and La Rond Marie Baker.
“We think it’s unfortunate that King County in the first place gave in to the hecklers,” said Ed Mast with the Mideast Awareness Campaign.
“It’s really unfortunate that this one topic is being excluded from a public forum,” he added. “The fact that King County Metro buses had ads about abortion, or atheism, or other hugely contentious issues, and never had to cancel ad space once they approved it is very upsetting for us as activists, but also for free speech in general.”
He noted that the ads criticized Israel’s foreign policy using the same legal language as the United Nations and Amnesty International. “Somehow they preserved the free speech of those who expressed anger about it but they have not preserved the free speech of those who wanted to place the ad.”
Mast said they did not see any evidence that Metro received credible threats of violence, and noted that local law enforcement did not take any action before the county decided to pull the ads. The decision to cancel was due, he said, to “overt pressure” from both “local and non-local” organizations which included both Christian and Jewish groups.