- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Marijuana-legalization ads posted recently in Metro buses and subway stations have prompted an Oklahoma congressman to propose legislation making it illegal for transit agencies that accept federal dollars to give advertising space to groups that advocate breaking the law.

Rep. Ernest Istook, Republican, cited “grave concern and displeasure” at the public service announcements placed on Metro buses and throughout area subway stations during October by Change the Climate, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit group.

Mr. Istook took particular exception to a marijuana-legalization ad showing a young couple embracing, and the caption “Enjoy Better Sex!”

“At a time when the nation and the Washington D.C. area, in particular, suffer from chronic substance abuse … I find it shocking that [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] provides this ad space, and at no cost!” Mr. Istook wrote in a letter to Jim Graham, chairman of the Metro Board and a D.C. Council member..

The Metro ads prompted the congressman, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee, to add language to an appropriations bill prohibiting federally subsidized transit agencies from giving ad space to organizations that tout legalizing drugs.

“Since [Metro] has the resources to provide $46,250 in free ad space for this very advertising,” Mr. Istook wrote, “I have to wonder why [Metro] should expect to receive the $67,050,000 in federal funding.”

The new language Mr. Istook inserted into the transportation legislation states that federal funds will not be available if a transit agency “is involved directly or indirectly with any activity … that promotes the legalization or medical use” of illegal drugs.

Mr. Istook wants to eliminate $92,500 in federal funding to Metro “as a warning to other transit agencies,” according to the legislation.

“I think it’s a moot point,” Mr. Graham said yesterday, referring to Mr. Istook’s amendment. “As of Jan. 1, we will not be considering any more public-service announcements, except as the local jurisdictions sponsor them.

“In terms of losing the $92,500, I think that is petty and punitive,” he said. “I think there would have been a better appreciation of the dilemma we were in.”

Metro recently reduced the space reserved for public service ads from 13 percent to 5 percent, with Maryland, the District and Virginia now handling their own public-service announcements.

Metro Board member Carlton Sickles, who represents Montgomery County, said the transit agency would abide by the new rules if federal lawmakers approve the legislation, which they will consider when the House reconvenes next week. However, Mr. Sickles said the board would not make any policy changes until that happens.

“It seems to me that this sort of legislation always gets very controversial and that it tends to get stuck in committee,” he said. “I don’t know where this is going at the moment, but we’ll be watching it carefully.”

Metro had rejected the ad campaign by Change the Climate two years ago, but reversed its position after the American Civil Liberties Union interceded on the group’s behalf.

Both Mr. Graham and Mr. Sickles said Metro had accepted the recent ads from Change the Climate because Metro’s attorneys said the transit agency likely would be sued if it refused.

“These nonprofits would have been very happy to have had a public controversy and to go to court,” Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Sickles said, “You have to take what they give you. If you’re going to accept the advertising, in terms of public-service ads, you’ve got take them all.”

However, not all transit agencies agree. In Boston, Change the Climate lost in court when it sued the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for the right to post its ads.

“We felt that it was promoting an illegal activity,” said Joseph Pesaturo, spokesman for the Boston-based transit agency. “Since we have a very captive audience in our stations made up of a lot of young people, we weren’t comfortable with that.

“The group sued claiming the usual violations of free speech. A U.S. District Court judge ruled in our favor.”

Local education activists said they were concerned about the pro-marijuana ads because most D.C. school children use Metro to get to and from school, but they had mixed feelings about Mr. Istook’s bid to make Metro to stop running them.

“I would rather see local authorities handling this issue, said Mary Levy, and analyst with Parents United, an advocacy organization that works to improve conditions in D.C. schools.

“When you try to regulate things by content, it is a very tricky business under the First Amendment,” Miss Levy said. “At the same time, when I saw the huge [pro-marijuana] ad that said ‘Have Better Sex’, I had to wonder what we’re saying to our children about drugs and about sex.”

“Generally, I don’t advocate censorship,” said Iris Toyer, chairwoman of Parents United. “But I have son in the sixth grade, and when it comes to this issue, I have to approach things with my ‘parent hat’ on.”

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