Muni Bans Political Ads on Buses, Trains and Shelters

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A Municipal Railway bus leaves a stop on 16th Street in San Francisco on April 5, 2017. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's Board of Directors voted Tuesday to ban political ads on its buses, trains and transit shelters, raising concerns of censorship.

Policies like this have been adopted by other transit systems nationwide, including New York City, in response to a recent wave of anti-Muslim ads. The SFMTA faced controversy in 2012 for ads that appeared on buses and transit shelters that said: "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel, defeat Jihad." At the time, transit officials said they could not remove the ads because that could be viewed as a violation of the First Amendment.

But Sameena Usman, director of government relations for the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), says that this policy change is not the solution.

"We stand up for our First Amendment rights," she told KQED. "Our American values teach us that the best response to this offensive speech is actually more speech, and this policy is the opposite of that."

Alan Schlosser, senior counsel for the San Francisco chapter of the ACLU, agrees. He said that discourse is the only way to deal with offensive public content, but he is also concerned that the policy may give transit authorities too much power.

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"Some Muni official will have the power to determine whether speech is political or not, insulting or not, or offensive or not," he said. "And those kinds of broad powers to government officials to make those subjective decisions is very problematic in terms of First Amendment protections."

Paul Rose, an SFMTA spokesman, defended the new policy, saying it was adopted to prevent the appearance of ads that "have the potential to be harmful or disruptive to the transit system."

Rose said that the SFMTA sought input from community groups while drafting the policy, which was adopted by a unanimous vote and without discussion, and goes into effect immediately.

The amended policy specifically prohibits "advertisements concerning a political or public issue, containing profanity or violent descriptions or images, are intended to be insulting, degrading, disparaging, demeaning or offensive, are reasonably likely to be harmful or disruptive to the SFMTA’s transit system, encourage or depict unsafe transit behavior or are adverse to the interests of the SFMTA, effective April 5, 2017."