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Originally published Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 3:44 PM

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Metro Transit shouldn't be in the advertising business

Metro's flap over bus ads prove a public agency should not be in the business of advertising. Either accept all ads or get out of the business altogether.

'Israeli war crimes' ad will not run on buses, bellows one newspaper headline. Metro rejects proposals for counter ads, explains the accompanying news story.

Metro is learning the hard way that it should not be in the advertising business. Instead of scrambling to craft better policies on noncommercial ads on buses, Metro should get out of the advertising business altogether.

This recommendation has nothing to do with ad content favoring or condemning Israel or Palestinians, or Jews or Arabs. All of that must be pushed aside.

The compelling point is that a public agency such as Metro should not be in the position of accepting or rejecting advertising — good, bad, dull or volatile. Advertising is a form of free speech and government should not have to make dicey decisions on which group to support or not — or which to appear to support or not.

Look at how unwieldy this debate has become. First, Metro officials said an ad from the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign that ties alleged Israeli war crimes to U.S. aid falls within its rules. The policy restricts advertising that, among other things, can be reasonably foreseen to result in harm to, disruption of, or interference with the transportation system.

Foggy stuff. After a media firestorm, King County Executive Dow Constantine decided the ads injected new and significant security concerns and required reassessment. Then, he said the ads would not be permitted. Nor will counter ads critical of Palestinians.

Who needs this? Metro does not. Our region does not. Accept all ads or get out of the business.

This editorial page also opposes ads on school buses for many similar reasons. Buses are expected to provide transportation, not get embroiled in First Amendment debates.

Metro's 2010 operating budget of $524 million is fed by $5.5 million from advertising, of which $400,000 a year came from noncommercial bus advertising. Eliminating bus ads would be a blow to an already beleaguered budget. But Metro should never have gotten into this predicament in the first place.

No matter how hard Metro lawyers toil, it will be difficult to craft policy that slices the free-speech principles properly.

Metro can fix this problem in one surefire way: stick to the transportation mission and get out of advertising — yes, even if bus agencies in other places do the same thing. It is not worth the challenge to public safety or the risk to free-speech principles.

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