By Atomic Taco (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The ACLU of Washington, a regular litigant in free-speech lawsuits, says the county's recent decision to pull 12 bus ads critical of Israel and declare a moratorium on noncommercial advertisement violates the law.

"What they've done so far is illegal," says Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington. She says that the county went afoul by accepting money and then refusing to post the ads after they proved controversial. "They've changed their policy after accepting ad revenue and are now retroactively applying this new policy." Furthermore, Taylor says a county policy to refuse noncommercial ads may violate free-speech rights.

At issue is a December 23 decision by King County executive Dow Constantine to refuse to post advertisements criticizing "Israeli war crimes" on the sides of Metro buses. The ads, purchased by the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, were slated to run for a month before they triggered a national outcry that included at least 500 calls and e-mails to King County Metro and plans for two counter ad campaigns.

"The county should rethink its decision [to pull the ads]," says Taylor, whose organization has been in contact with the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign. Meanwhile, "our lawyers are sharpening their knives," she says.

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In addition to blocking the ads, Constantine issued a 30-day moratorium on all noncommercial bus advertising while the county considers a new policy. This closes off an affordable, ubiquitous advertising option for at least 81 nonprofits, government agencies, and political campaigns (like the American Lung Association and Meow Cat Rescue) that bought noncommercial ads in 2010, according to King County Metro spokeswoman Linda Thielke. Thielke says that Metro took in $479,000 from these noncommercial ads (out of $5.5 million in Metro ad revenue)—nearly a half-million dollars in annual revenue diverted from an agency that's gearing up for a massive deficit in its 2011–2012 budget.

Apparently trying to address concerns that a continued ban may violate the First Amendment, Constantine wrote in a statement, "Further work during the coming weeks will help determine what constitutionally-­valid policy is best." Constantine's office wouldn't address the ACLU's call to run the controversial bus ads but did say Constantine welcomes the chance to work with the ACLU to draft the new permanent ad policy by the end of January. recommended