Subterranean soapbox Anti-`occupation’ ads coming to Metro stations
by Richard Greenberg 10 April 2007
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about to go underground– into the Washington subway system, to be exact.
Beginning May 13, some 20 downtown Metro stations will be emblazoned with posters advertising a June 10 rally and march in Washington protesting “Israel’s illegal military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.”
The event, which will be held on the west lawn of the Capitol, is being organized by the District-based U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which claims 250 member organizations around the country.
“If past events organized by this organization are any indication, it will make no attempt to present a balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and this ad is a pure reflection of that,” said Oren Segal, a spokesperson for the Anti-Defamation League.
The U.S. Campaign’s effort to publicize the rally ran into an early roadblock that escalated into a minor freedom of speech face-off that eventually involved the American Civil Liberties Union.
The saga began unfolding when the U.S. Campaign approached CBS Outdoor, the New York-based company that handles in-station advertising for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. A CBS Outdoor account executive refused to place the organization’s ad, claiming in a March 9 e-mail that it was “too offensive to be displayed in a public place,” according to Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area.
Jodi Senese, CBS Outdoor’s executive vice president in charge of marketing, rejected the ad, saying it appeared to violate company policy. “The ad,” she explained in an interview, “included a picture that I felt was inflammatory and was exploitative of children.”
Senese said the ad was not turned down because of its political stance. “I’m Jewish,” she added, “and I didn’t want to be seen as making a political statement.”
The ad is dominated by a photograph of a child who is facing a giant tank that looms menacingly in the near distance. The accompanying text reads in part: “Imagine if this were your child’s daily path to school. Palestinians don’t have to imagine.” In larger, bold letters, it also reads: “The World Says No to Israeli Occupation!”
Within days of being turned down, a U.S. Campaign official contacted Spitzer, who then set out to touch base with a lawyer he knows in the WMATA legal office, who, as Spitzer put it, “understands the First Amendment and can help solve this with a call.”
The issue was indeed solved with a single nonthreatening call, and a confirming e-mail. CBS Outdoor has been instructed by WMATA to place the ad as per its contract with the U.S. Campaign, and the company has not objected, according to Spitzer. WMATA spokesperson Joanne Ferreira said only: “We didn’t have any problem with the ad. It was a First Amendment issue.”
The 46-by-60-inch ads (one per designated station) will appear for one month, according to a U.S. Campaign spokesperson who declined to comment when asked how much the advertising campaign costs.
Spitzer said this case is not precedent-setting. Over the years, several highly politicized ads have run in the Metro system, espousing positions spanning the political spectrum. In some cases, the ACLU has gone to court to fend off those who sought to remove them.
Spitzer, who is Jewish, was asked if he had any compunctions about defending the rights of an organization that is publicly and harshly criticizing Israel. “This is not a case about Judaism or Israel,” he said, “but about establishing someone’s right to freedom of speech, which I agree with regardless of whether I agree with their particular political position.”