The ACLU of Washington is taking its fight to protect free political speech on metro buses—specifically, advertisements that depict "Israeli War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars at Work"—to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Yesterday, the group filed a lawsuit appealing a U.S. District Court's decision that found King County had reasonable cause to pull the political ads, purchased last December by the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign (SeaMAC), because the county, metro, and its riders faced a legitimate risk of service disruption caused by threats.
"If you want to see how tough Jews can be, then go ahead and run those despicable ads and we’ll see who has the last word on this," reads one of hundreds of letters reportedly received by KC Metro, which helped inform the lower court's decision. "If you run these ads, we will work together with our Jewish friends and others to shut Metro down.”
However, the ACLU argues that the county's actions—accepting money and then canceling the ads after they proved controversial—amounted to censorship and violated SeaMAC's First Amendment rights.
“In a free and democratic society, we cannot allow the government to suppress lawful speech,” Kathleen Taylor, ACLU of Washington executive director, said in a statement. “We should keep in mind that mild speech doesn’t need protection. It is when we are faced with controversial speech, speech that is upsetting to some people, that support of the First Amendment is most important."
In December 2010, the nonprofit SeaMAC—which seeks to education the American public about the U.S. policies on the Israel-Palestinian conflict—bought 12 full-banner bus ads reading “Israeli War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars at Work" from KC Metro that they planned to run for two weeks. However, the county pulled the ads before they appeared on buses. In January, the ACLU of Washington filed suit on behalf of SeaMAC in U.S. District Court seeking a declaration that King County’s decision not to publish the ad violated the First Amendment and an order that the county publish the ad as originally promised. On October 7, the district court dismissed the lawsuit. The dismissal is now being appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
“We continue to believe that the county acted improperly in canceling the contract to run the ads," said ACLU-WA legal director Sarah Dunne in a statement. "When government accepts paid ads to run on public buses, it cannot refuse to run an ad because it stirs controversy. The cancellation of SeaMAC’s ad amounted to censorship."
Meanwhile, in the spring King County revised its Metro Bus ad policies to prohibit ads pertaining to issues of public debate.