Mass. Bay Transit Authority bans political issue ads after anti-Israel ad debate

Marcy Oster

BOSTON (JTA) – The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority voted to ban ads on political issues, a move which comes in the midst of ongoing legal disputes over subway advertisements on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The decision approved Monday, that takes effect on December 1, says that the MBTA will not accept ads about political issues or those that express opinions on public debates about “economic, political, moral, religious or social issues.”

The current policy does not allow ads with language that demeans or disparages individuals or groups. It also bans ads for political candidates or ballot questions.

The vote was taken following a contentious meeting where advocates on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict pressed their views.

In a statement last week to JTA, an MBTA spokesperson said, “To reduce unnecessary litigation which can arise from issue-based ads of this nature, the MBTA is currently considering whether to amend its advertising guidelines and in the future will not accept ads concerning political issues or matters of public debate.”

That comment was in response to the authority’s approval of an ad by the Palestine Advocacy Project currently displayed at one subway station. The poster, which features a large photograph of a child and the word “violence” in large, bold letters, accuses Israel’s military of using U.S. tax dollars to kill 2,000 Palestinian children since September 2000, and calls for the end of U.S. military aid to Israel.

Previously, the transit authority rejected a pro-Israel ad by Pamela Geller of American Freedom Defense Initiative but later allowed the ad after it was resubmitted with changes in wording.

In a statement before Monday’s meeting, the American Jewish Committee Boston, the Anti Defamation League’s New England office and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston took issue with the decision to allow the recent ad by the pro-Palestinian group and called on the MBTA to remove the poster.

The ad “elicits anger from viewers,” the joint statement says. “At a time when Jews and Israelis around the world are facing mounting violence and anti-Semitism, this false and deceptive advertisement can only be construed as hostile and dangerously provocative.”

In a statement before the meeting, JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton said the group values robust debate over complex issues. “However, such issues will not be resolved by misleading and provocative propaganda that stands to further divide the public.”

“We have the right to criticize government. Every government in the world needs to be able to be criticized,” said Richard Colbath-Hess, of the Palestine Advocacy Project. According to State House News Service as reported in the Boston Business Journal, Colbath-Hess, a recently retired professor, said he is Jewish and his father is a Holocaust survivor.

Sarah Wunsch, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Boston Globe she believes the decision is going in the “wrong direction for a free society.” Earlier, she told JTA that the ACLU has long argued on behalf of controversial advertisements in the transit system as a form of legitimate expression in a public space. The group represented the Palestine Advocacy Project in recent discussions with the transit authority.

In earlier reports, state transportation secretary Stephanie Pollack said the MBTA expects little economic impact from its decision.

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