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Originally published July 18, 2013 at 7:38 PM | Page modified July 18, 2013 at 9:09 PM

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Controversial bus ads reveal Metro’s quiet policy change

King County Metro Transit’s little-noticed return to an ad policy that allows discussion of controversial issues led it to accept dueling ads making claims about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority’s policy toward Jews.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Dueling ads over Israel and the Palestinian Authority reflect a decision quietly made by King County officials more than a year ago to reopen ad space on Metro Transit buses to political debate.

The latest ad, saying the government of the Palestinian West Bank is “calling for a Jew-free state,” went on six Bellevue-based buses this week under a four-week contract with a New York-based right-wing group.

The ad, which ends with the words, “Equal rights for Jews,” was a response to the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign’s recent ad advocating “Equal rights for Palestinians.”

Representatives of SeaMAC and the American Freedom Defense Initiative both said King County has unfairly favored the other side.

The new war of words comes after the county’s return to an ad policy similar to what was in place in December 2010 when Metro accepted a SeaMAC ad alleging Israeli war crimes. Metro removed the ad after widespread public objections to it.

U.S. District Judge Richard Jones approved the decision to pull that ad, which county officials said was a response to threats of violence and disruption of bus service. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is reviewing Jones’ ruling.

After an interim ban on all noncommercial advertising on buses, Metro in April 2011 approved a new policy that once again allowed public-service ads by nonprofit groups, but banned ads by political parties and candidates.

The 2011 policy, approved by County Executive Dow Constantine, also prohibited ads expressing views “on matters of public debate about economic, political, religious or social issues.”

Metro cited that policy in refusing an ad urging shoppers to “Buy American” and shop locally. After a Seattle Times story about that decision, Metro reversed itself and accepted the ad, saying it promoted purchases as opposed to expressing an opinion on a public issue.

Then, in a little-noticed action, Metro General Manager Kevin Desmond in January 2012 signed a revised ad policy that lifted the ban on debating public issues in bus ads.

Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer said that policy was adopted “after we took a look at the legal parameters and we looked at the national best practices” for advertising. Allowing more noncommercial ads has helped Metro maximize ad revenues, which were about $5 million last year, Switzer said.

The updated policy bans false or misleading statements, demeaning or disparaging content, and material likely to lead to disruptions of bus service.

When the “Equal rights for Jews” ad showed up this week, SeaMAC said it was being treated unfairly because Metro had pulled its “fact-based, well-documented” 2010 war-crimes ad, but accepted the AFDI’s “false, distorted, made-up accusation” against the Palestinian Authority.

SeaMAC spokesman Ed Mast called AFDI an anti-Muslim hate group and said it misrepresented the Palestinian Authority’s position on allowing Jews to live in a future Palestinian state.

Mast said he didn’t believe Metro’s acceptance of the competing “equal rights” ads showed evenhanded treatment by the county.

SeaMAC’s “Equal rights for Palestinians” ad ran on the outside of up to 12 buses in Seattle and Bellevue for several months earlier this year, and is currently displayed in a modified form inside some Metro buses, Mast said.

AFDI President Pamela Geller said in an email that King County treated her organization differently than other advertisers, including SeaMAC, because the county required “abundant documentation” of AFDI’s claims and wouldn’t accept the ad until the group threatened a lawsuit.

“They (SeaMAC) smear us as ‘hateful’ because they cannot refute what we say,” Geller said. Her biography on the AFDI website says the group fights “the treason” of journalists and government officials “in their capitulation to the global jihad and Islamic supremacism” and the federal government’s march toward socialism.

Metro’s Switzer denied a claim by AFDI’s lawyer that the transit agency refused the ad multiple times before accepting it.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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