MBTA bans political ads on Boston public transit

The vote followed a heated public comment period about a controversial advertisement at the Davis Square Red Line station.

This advertisement at Davis Square’s MBTA station will be banned under the T’s new ad policy.
This advertisement at Davis Square’s MBTA station will be banned under the T’s new ad policy. –Chris Greenberg / Boston.com

Boston’s public transit leaders voted Monday to ban advertisements about political issues and matters of public debate.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority already restricted advertisements for political campaigns, as well as ads considered demeaning to a group or individual. The new policy will ban any ad that “expresses or advocates an opinion, position or viewpoint on a matter of public debate about economic, political, moral, religious, or social issues.’’

The unanimous vote at a meeting of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board followed a heated public comment period about a controversial advertisement at the Davis Square Red Line station, which is critical of the governments of Israel and the U.S. The ad blames Israel’s military for the death of Palestinian children.

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Discussion of the ad temporarily turned the filled-to-capacity MBTA meeting into a forum on global affairs and free speech. Several pro-Israel advocates and members of the public condemned the ad, arguing it would incite hatred or violence toward Jewish people.

“I demand you take this down,’’ said Paul Fleishman, who spoke against the ad in front of the board. “Whenever the trains didn’t work last winter, I was the first one to explain to people that there are smart people, intelligent people, working through the problem. … Today I question the intelligence and general judgment of this board, because this pretty much sounds to me like an invitation to Boston children to spend a summer camp in an ISIS territory in Syria.’’

The ad in question was submitted last fall and was kept in review by the MBTA until it was resubmitted and approved several months later. The ACLU of Massachusetts argued the ad did not violate the T’s advertising guidelines on behalf of the Palestine Advocacy Project, which placed it. The T ultimately agreed the ad satisfied its “viewpoint-neutral standards for all advertising,’’ spokesman Joe Pesaturo said.

Charles Jacobs, cofounder of the group Americans for Peace and Tolerance, called for an investigation Monday of how the ad was approved.

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“We ask Gov. [Charlie] Baker today to investigate this attack on our community. … How did this happen? And who is responsible for the decision to put up the anti-semitic ad?’’ Jacobs said.

Representatives of the Palestine Advocacy Project said public spaces should be used to fuel debate.

“We are firm supporters of free speech,’’ said Richard Colbath-Hess, a board member with the Palestine Advocacy Project who identified himself as Jewish. “The solution to speech we don’t like is to have more political speech. … We have the right to criticize a government.’’

Following the public comment period, the debate continued in a hallway outside the meeting, where Colbath-Hess, while speaking with reporters, argued with surrounding men and women who opposed the ad.

“If you don’t like what’s on the T, look away or put up your own ad,’’ Colbath-Hess said.

“This isn’t free speech, this is misinformation,’’ somebody said in response.

Minutes later, the board voted to ban the ad.

John Englander, an MBTA attorney, said the policy change had been in the works before the recent ad controversy. The change was also a reaction to a pro-Israel ad that has been at the center of a longtime legal challenge from the group seeking to place it, Englander said.

Englander said the policy change would save the fiscally challenged MBTA money because it would limit the agency’s litigation costs.

“We have had a number of lawsuits about these issues in the past,’’ he said. “By making the change, those lawsuits will be minimized if not eliminated.’’

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An anti-animal cruelty ad will also have to come down under the new policy, Englander said. The new policy will take effect Dec. 1. It mirrors a similar move from New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority earlier this year.

The T also banned electronic cigarette ads as part of the policy change. MBTA officials are considering allowing alcohol ads, which were banned in 2012, as a way to raise revenue, but the matter was not discussed Monday.

Also at Monday’s meeting, officials discussed the T’s fare policy. The board is tentatively scheduled to be presented at a Jan. 6 meeting with possible fare change plans for next summer.

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