(JTA) — The Seattle-area transit authority can refuse to post an advertisement criticizing Israeli policy as long as it is part of a viewpoint-neutral ban on the subject, according to a ruling by a U.S. federal appeals court.
In a ruling issued March 18, a panel of judges from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that King County acted within its rights when it rejected ads critical of Israel, upholding a previous ruling by a federal district court. The opinion, authored by Judge Paul Watford and joined by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, reasoned that the bus advertisements constituted a “limited public forum” and that the government could thus limit speech in some circumstances, provided that the limitations were both reasonable and not prejudiced against a particular point of view.
In dissent, Judge Morgan Christen argued that the advertisements were, in fact, a “designated public forum,” meaning that they should be open to all forms of speech except in specific, limited circumstances. Christen argued that the county needed to demonstrate that posting the advertisement would lead to a real, rather than a speculative, threat to public safety.
The controversy arose in 2010, when the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign attempted to purchase an ad stating “Israeli War Crimes Your Tax Dollars At Work.” The King County Metro and county officials initially approved the ad, but in response, King County Metro was flooded with threats and complaints, as well as demands to post a pair of inflammatory ads critical of Palestinians and Muslims. In response, Metro decided not to post the original ad, and to ban all ads on the subject.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle applauded the court’s decision, saying in a statement that “we believe the advertising in question was divisive. It would have driven communities further apart and exacerbated the difficulty of promoting reconciliation and securing a just and lasting peace.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington criticized the decision in a statement, according to Reuters, arguing that “King County allowed its fear of controversy to trump a commitment to free speech.”