MBTA will ban political advertising on public transit after anti-Israel ad controversy

An ad opposing U.S. military aid to Israel on the wall of an MBTA station.
An ad opposing U.S. military aid to Israel on the wall of an MBTA station. –Chris Greenberg/ Boston.com

The MBTA is planning to ban all political advertising after an ad critical of Israel placed at the Davis Square station caused a stir over the limits of free speech.

The ad from the Palestine Advocacy Project says Israel kills a Palestinian child every three days, aided by money from the United States.

“What we are trying to do is highlight to Americans a component of the story we think is missed,’’ Jake Chase-Lubitz of the Palestine Advocacy Project told WCVB this week.

The ad was criticized by the Jewish Relations Council of Greater Boston, which said in a statement to news outlets that “spreading distortions and inaccuracies about a complex political situation will achieve no positive benefit.’’

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MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said a ban on political messaging could come “within two months.’’

“To reduce unnecessary litigation which can arise from issue-based ads of this nature, the MBTA is working toward amending its advertising guidelines and, in the future, will not accept ads concerning political issues or matters of public debate,’’ Pesaturo said.

The T’s current advertising guidelines ban political campaign ads, which pertain to specific candidates, parties, and ballot questions. The agency also does not allow ads that are considered “demeaning or disparaging’’ to an individual or a group. Enacting a broader ban on political issue ads would require approval by the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, Pesaturo said.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City banned political advertisements earlier this year after a flare-up over a pro-Israel ad the agency had rejected.

Sarah Wunsch, the ACLU of Massachusetts’s deputy legal director, said she is “sorry’’ to hear about the T’s plan. The ACLU helped get the Palestinian Advocacy Project’s ad approved.

“I’m sorry they are going in that direction because I think we need more public spaces where people can share their views, even if people don’t love those views,’’ she said. “I think the T is actually going to have a hard time figuring out what’s political and what isn’t? … Are they allowing public service messages that are taking a view of political issues that are in debate?’’

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Wunsch said the ACLU has challenged the MBTA on advertisements several times in the past.

Last year, the T removed advertisements from the Palestinian Advocacy Project before the group’s contract had expired, drawing the threat of legal action from the ACLU. The group then submitted a version of the new ad in the fall of 2014, and the ad was kept in review by the T for several months.

The ACLU argued in letters and conversations that the ad did not violate the agency’s advertising guidelines. The ad gained approval after it was resubmitted with some changes, according to ACLU spokesman Christopher Ott.

“The MBTA accepted the advertisements because they comply with … the T’s viewpoint-neutral standards for all advertising displayed on MBTA property,’’ Pesaturo said.

The T has separately faced a long-term legal challenge from a group seeking to place pro-Israel ads that say: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel; defeat Jihad.’’

According to a 2014 Boston magazine article, the T accepted another ad from the same group that slightly modified its language to fit its guidelines, saying: “In any war between the civilized man and those engaged in savage acts, support the civilized man. Defeat violent jihad. Support Israel.’’

But the group behind the ads, which was also behind the ad in New York, has continued to push its challenge on free-speech grounds. District and appelate courts have said the MBTA was within its rights to deny that ad, but the group is now seeking a Supreme Court hearing of the case.

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