MANY PUBLIC TRANSIT agencies can pick and choose the ads they run inside their buses and trains. Not TriMet—a court case ties Portland's transit agency's hands, mandating that TriMet either accepts every ad or forgoes ads entirely and misses out on $5.3 million in annual revenue.
That's bad news for TriMet riders who, over the next four weeks, will be subjected to an ad from a right-wing group that reads, "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad."
The "savage" ads are in response to another recent ad that featured a map showing the loss of Palestinian territory and noted the ongoing conflict with Israel has created 4.7 million refugees.
While TriMet and other transit agencies have tried to keep their ad space politically neutral, that stance has irritated free speech advocates and political groups—sparking court fights in the Northwest and around the nation.
Bus ad space has become a bizarre battleground for the Israel-Palestine conflict, in particular, and other political fights. And now transit agencies in New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, are all scrambling to see whether they can legally ban the "savage" ads.
Seattle's King County Metro argued in court last month with the American Civil Liberties Union, who said the agency violated free speech rights by rejecting an ad about "Israeli war crimes." In the midst of the court battle, King County Metro reaffirmed its policy to run only commercial ads and nonprofit public service announcements—banning ads about politics, ads that express an opinion, and any ads featuring alcohol, tobacco, guns, or "adult material."
Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus also found itself in hot water this month after it rejected an ad for the Los Angeles AIDS Walk. The bus has run ads for the AIDS Walk for years, but fearing the influx of anti-Israel and anti-Palestine ads running nationwide, officials rejected all non-commercial ads this year. Sensing discrimination, organizers took the Big Blue Bus to court, which upheld the transit system's decision last week.
"We have to zealously adhere to our policies," says Big Blue Bus spokeswoman Suja Lowenthal. "We don't want to be in a position of saying which speech is fine and which isn't."
A Multnomah County court felt the opposite way about TriMet's commercial-ads-only policy, deciding in 2008 that the agency's refusal to allow a Karuk Indian tribe ad about salmon and dam policies was discriminatory. TriMet has appealed the case to the Supreme Court, but in the meantime must either accept all ads or ditch advertising entirely. Forgoing ad money would mean even more service cuts.
"We are disappointed that the sides of our buses and trains have become a medium for divisive discussions, and we apologize to you," the agency's marketing director, Drew Blevins, said in a TriMet blog post.
One local group is benefiting from the open ad policy, though: Occupy Portland is fundraising $1,750 to run 25 ads on the ceilings of MAX and buses.