- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Richard A. Bishop, a Washington-based lawyer, has come up against a delicate First Amendment issue with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

The sacred text is as follows: “Traffic Sucks.”

This is the enlightening advertisement displayed on the back of a number of Metro buses.

It must have taken weeks to formulate.

Let’s see: Traffic … what? Traffic stinks? No. Traffic hurts? No.

Wait. Got it. Traffic sucks. Bingo. That’s it. Hallelujah.

Traffic is a challenge in the city, along with parking tickets, potholes and an ever-growing rodent population.

Mr. Bishop, in being concerned with the coarsening of America, was offended by the in-your-face commentary on the back of a Metro bus.

So Mr. Bishop, a dutiful citizen, directed his objection by letter to Metro General Manager Richard A. White, who in turn passed along the matter to an underling, who in turn rendered a powerful interpretation of the First Amendment.

The underling dispensed the following insight to Mr. Bishop: “As a public agency, WMATA must observe the First Amendment with respect to the acceptance of commercial advertising. The display of the ad is consistent with WMATA’s policy of remaining content-neutral when accepting advertising.”

In other words, the transit authority is stuck. What can it do? Right.

That is what they all say as long as it is politically convenient, and in this case, it is politically convenient to accept the advertising dollars under the guise of the First Amendment.

But here’s the thing: The transit authority would not accept a socially divisive advertisement, no matter how protected it might be by the First Amendment.

Just because a person or group has the right to say the most reprehensible things imaginable, it does not follow that a public company is obligated to provide a person or group with a platform.

The transit authority would not feel compelled to accept the following ad: “Ride the bus and be late for your appointment.”

This form of free speech, however accurate at times, probably would not be good for business or employee morale.

The First Amendment has endured a considerable workout in recent months, starting with the antiwar protesters who celebrated their free-speech rights in obtrusive ways, but somehow felt stifled around those who voiced a dissenting view.

Tim Robbins, the left-wing extremist who hangs out with Susan Sarandon, made a breathtakingly upside-down case in a visit to the National Press Club in April.

The actor played the role of a free-speech martyr before a receptive audience, saying he found it almost chilling to be the object of criticism.

As he explained it, it was somehow unfair of others to express their free-speech rights as fiercely as he does. It also was somehow unfair if moviegoers elect not to attend his flicks because of his political views.

It seems his notion of free speech comes without consequences, which is a novel concept.

Free speech assumes a lot of peculiar forms, sometimes as a blunt instrument against common courtesies, decencies and standards in the public domain.

Perhaps it starts with something as small as a crude advertisement on the back of a bus.

“That word just has too many crummy connotations,” Mr. Bishop says. “I think this is a problem with our society, a kind of anything-goes attitude. If that word is permissible, then what is next?”

The marketplace already is awash in tasteless banter that flies under the banner of being hip or artistically valid.

You can call people all kinds of rotten names as long as you are a deeply troubled rapper/poet/philosopher with an attitude. Eminem, to name one, has made a lucrative living bringing the gutter to a video screen near you. The man is a deep thinker, so you just have to accept his torment.

You do not have to accept it on the back of a bus. You can write a letter to the Metro chairman and let a minion hide under the useful immunity of the First Amendment.

“I just think it reflects an absence of standards in the community,” Mr. Bishop says. “I know other riders feel the same way that I do.”

Mr. Bishop has done his civic duty by pointing it out.

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