- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2007

A liberal activist group has bought banner advertisements on Metro buses condemning President Bush’s proposal to increase troops in Iraq.

The Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit MoveOn.org paid about $33,000 to place the ads, which read, “Voters say enough, stop the escalation now,” on the sides of 50 buses, according to Metro officials.

The ads first appeared on Jan. 22 and will be posted for four weeks. They are part of a larger national campaign protesting Mr. Bush’s plan to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq.

Officials with the publicly funded transit agency yesterday said that the political content of the advertisement was not a factor in their decision to post them.

“We view ourselves as content neutral,” said Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. “We are open to all viewpoints. People may agree, and people may disagree.”

Metro officials have wrestled with the issue of political content in advertisements several times in recent years.

In October 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the federal government and Metro after the transit agency banned ads touting the legalization of marijuana. Metro pulled the ads after Congress threatened to withhold $170 million in federal subsidies from the cash-strapped agency. A federal court struck down the ban in 2005.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat and a member of the Metro board of directors, opposed the marijuana legalization ad campaign, calling it “intolerable.”

Mr. Graham said yesterday that the threat of lawsuits has forced the Metro board in recent years to “err on the side of First Amendment rights.”

“This has been the subject of very considerable debate,” he said. “It was costly to Metro to defend all of this.”

Metro has since adopted a policy of refusing ads only in extreme cases of abusive language.

Officials said they had not received any complaints about the antiwar ads as of yesterday.

“I think most people understand that advocacy advertising is protected speech,” said Ron Rydstrom, an advertising manager at Metro. Mr. Rydstrom said he isn’t concerned that people will misinterpret the antiwar message as Metro’s view because the sponsor is always clearly marked in the ad.

Officials with MoveOn did not return a phone message or an e-mail seeking comment.

Metro officials say advocacy groups rarely advertise with the transit agency, but occasionally a group will buy space before an election or while a hot issue — like the Iraq war — is debated in Congress.

A 2001 campaign accused Catholic bishops of letting people die from diseases like AIDS because of the church’s policy against condoms. Some argued that Metro should have refused the ads on the basis that they were false or misleading.

In 2005, an ad by the National Institute on Drug Abuse linked drug abuse to HIV infection among teens. The ad featured two teenage girls discussing a mutual friend, who discovered she contracted HIV after taking drugs at a party and engaging in “risky behavior.”

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