MBTA’s removal of ad critical of Israel spurs new conflict
A pro-Palestine advocacy group and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said they are considering legal action against the MBTA after the transit agency removed a subway station ad criticizing the Israeli government, the latest in a series of controversies over T station advertisements on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The ad, displayed at State Street Station last month, was made up of three side-by-side posters bearing the words “Homeless,” “Stolen,” and “Violence.” Each poster highlighted statistics on purported human rights abuses committed by the Israeli government against Palestinians, attributing the information to organizations such as the United Nations. The posters were removed nearly four weeks after they appeared.
Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, said the ads were removed because they violated the T’s advertising policy, which prohibits demeaning or disparaging ads.
“After undergoing additional scrutiny, the ad was deemed to be in noncompliance with the MBTA’s court-approved advertising guidelines,” Pesaturo said.
But the group behind the poster — an organization called Ads Against Apartheid, whose stated mission is “exhibiting Israeli human rights violations in Palestine” — maintained that there was nothing offensive about the words on the signs.
“There is certainly a double standard here,” Chadi Salamoun, the group’s president and cofounder, said in a statement. “Our ads present facts cited by respectable institutions. The MBTA has allowed anti-Palestinian groups to display opinionated messages that border on hate speech.”
The recently removed advertisements ask, “Does Israel want peace . . . or land?” Another implores, “End US support for Israeli apartheid.”
After a four-week review process, the posters were approved by the T and appeared June 2. But they were removed six days before they were scheduled to come down, according to Richard Colbath-Hess, the advocacy group’s cofounder and treasurer, who said the T did not inform the group it was taking them down.
Ads Against Apartheid is raising money to lobby for more advertisements to appear on the T, and it is working with the ACLU of Massachusetts to consider filing a lawsuit against the T, alleging that the agency failed to properly apply its own policy on acceptable advertisements.
“We’re talking about human rights abuses,” Colbath-Hess said. “We’re not calling people names.”
Pesaturo said concerns about the ads were raised by someone who had seen the posters. Under the T’s policy, an advertisement is deemed unacceptable if it “contains material that ridicules or mocks, is abusive or hostile to, or debases the dignity or stature of, an individual or group of individuals.”
In the past year, other advertisements related to conflict in the Middle East have sparked controversy. In October, an advertisement purported to show swaths of land unfairly annexed by Israel from 1946 to 2000. The ad was initially approved by the T and posted in subway stations, then later removed. Following criticism, the T backtracked, blamed the removal on a miscommunication, and put the advertisements back up.
Months later, T officials denied a request for an advertisement sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative that read: “In any war between the civilized man and savages, support the civilized man. Support Israel, defeat Jihad.” A federal judge later sided with the T, but the pro-Israel organization was able to post a modified ad that changed “savages” to “those engaged in savage acts.”
Robert Muise, a lawyer with the American Freedom Law Center who challenged the T in that case, said he was disheartened to see the MBTA attempting to censor another group, even though that group’s views on Israel conflict with the ones held by his client.
“This is a problem that the MBTA has brought onto themselves,” Muise said. “By allowing political speech, they have opened up the forum. They can’t pick and choose what messages they think are acceptable.”
The ACLU has sued the T at least three times over subway ads that were barred by the transit agency.
“We’re big people in a free and democratic society,” said Sarah Wunsch, an ACLU staff attorney. “We should be able to look at something we don’t agree with and not fall apart.”
She added: “People may not like it, they may be offended by it, but those aren’t reasons to suspend free speech on government property.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Robert Muise’s first name.