Something will be missing from Metro busses in the new year. The cash-strapped county agency will no longer accept non-commerical or political advertising.
If an ad doesn't sell a product or service, Metro will no longer put it on a bus.
The change means the kittens of MEOW Cat Rescue and the clients of United Way will no longer stare down from the sides of the bus, since both are caught up in a controversy over an ad in support of Palestinians.
King County Executive Dow Constantine imposed a temporary ban on all non-commercial bus ads Dec. 23, the day before a set of bus ads that read "Israeli War Crimes: Your Tax Dollars at Work" were scheduled to go on buses.
The ads included a photo of Palestinian children staring at the rubble of a building. The Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign had scheduled 12 of the placards to run for a month starting Dec. 27, the two-year anniversary of Israeli's assault on the Gaza Strip.
Public outcry thwarted their plans. Emails opposing the ads started rolling in to Metro Dec. 17, after KING-5 News aired a piece on the ads before they were scheduled to run.
As of Dec. 28, Metro had received more than 4,200 e-mails, Metro Transit spokesperson Linda Thielke said.
The agency's advertising policy allows it to decline ads that pose a risk of disrupting bus service. Thielke said Metro believed that risk was high after receiving thousands of e-mails opposed to the ads from all over the world.
Critics say Metro's new, comprehensive ban on political advertising muffles free speech, and they plan to fight it.
The Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington say the ad cancellation violates the First Amendment. They are weighing their next moves, they say, up to and including a possible lawsuit.
"We do think we need to defend free speech," said Carla Curio, a member of the Mideast Awareness Campaign. "You don't shut somebody down because you don't like what they're saying."
Wendy Dore, marketing director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, said representatives of her group, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and StandWithUs Northwest met with King County and Metro officials to urge Metro to reject the ads and a set of counter ads that two opposing groups sought to buy.
"We feel very strongly about free speech and the need for and support of the First Amendment," Dore said. "We just were concerned about this particular ad and its relation to Metro's own policy."
The policy, she said, was clear in prohibiting ads that insult an individual or group to an extent that challenges safety and security or risks violence.
The ads criticized U.S. foreign policy and the nation-state of Israel, Curio said. That's not the same as criticizing Jewish people. To equate the two creates a slippery slope for First Amendment rights, she said.
ACLU Legal Director Sarah Dunne said there's no evidence that anyone made a threat to public safety.
Thielke said the e-mails that Metro received did not contain what she would call threats, but the agency wanted to avoid a potential protest that could disrupt bus service.
Dunne and Curio say that's putting the cart before the horse. If people get in the way of bus service, police can remove them; it's not Metro's job to censor speech.
Similar ads and counter ads ran in early 2009 without incident, Dunne said.
Thielke, the Metro spokesperson, said this is the first time Metro has ever accepted and then cancelled advertising.
Dunne, of the ACLU, hopes it will be the last.
"You don't control the speech. You don't censor the speech," she said. "You allow the public discourse and dialogue to happen."