Metro is adding disclaimers to ads in its system as a controversy playing out in posters across the rail system pushes buttons about Mideast politics and religion.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said it is adding a line of text distancing itself from all new "viewpoint" ads that reads: "This is a paid advertisement sponsored by [sponsor].The advertising space is a designated public forum and does not imply WMATA's endorsement of any views express."
The agency was urged to add a disclaimer to a set of ads that went up earlier this month that opponents said equated Muslims with savages. The agency started to add the disclaimers to all new noncommerical ads last week as the controversy grew, with counter ads and counter-counter ads.
"Metro advertising space is deemed a public forum by the courts, and the ads you see on buses, trains, and in stations comply with existing guidelines and are protected by the First Amendment," General Manager Richard Sarles wrote in an internal memo. "However, we want to make sure customers know we don't endorse any of these messages."
The agency was told by a federal court this month that it could no longer delay posting ads from the American Freedom Defense Initiative reading, "In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad." The same ads ran in New York City's subways and San Francisco's Muni.
The ads displayed on Metro prompted some unofficial makeovers with Post-its and signs, calls for boycotts of Metro and two sets of counter ads. A coalition of religious groups began an ad campaign saying, "Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed." The Council on American-Islamic Relations is taking out ads showing a verse from the Quran stating: "Show forgiveness, speak for justice and avoid the ignorant."
But in response to the CAIR ad, AFDI's co-founder Pamela Geller said last week her group had submitted a new ad quoting the Quran, too. Next to a picture of the burning World Trade Center, it reads: "Slay the unbelievers where ye find them. (The Quran, 9:5)" and "Those who disbelieve Our revelations. We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed. We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment. (The Quran, 4:56)"
Metro has weathered other controversial ads. In March, congressional officials and its own workers slammed it about an ad for a film that included the tag line: "Go to hell Barack." And in 2008, ads placed on buses about atheism spurred a counter-ad campaign.
Courts have told Metro repeatedly it cannot censor ads for political views.
The ads cannot be factually misleading or false, nor can they violate laws or incite violence, Metro says. Profanity is out, as are ads for drugs and alcohol. Everything else must be accepted, the agency has said.