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MBTA Board Bans All Political Issue Ads

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The board that oversees the MBTA voted Monday to ban all advertisements on the transit system that deal with political issues or "matters of public debate," following recent controversies over ads dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The unanimous voice vote followed a raucous public comment period, as more than a dozen people testified before the board about an ad currently on display, calling it "defamatory" and "slander against the Jewish people."

Others, however, said a ban on political ads would infringe on free speech and that public spaces, such as the T, should be forums for public debate.

The latest ad to stir controversy -- which was recently put up in the Davis Square MBTA station and was paid for by the Palestine Advocacy Project -- criticizes the Israeli government, saying it has "killed one Palestinian child every three days using U.S. tax dollars." The ad calls for an end to U.S. military aid to the country.

Charles Jacobs, director of the group Americans for Peace and Tolerance, called the ad anti-Semitic, said it was untrue, and told the board it puts “the Jewish community here in danger."

Jacobs noted that the T had rejected two counter ads, including one that read:

In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.

Jacobs called on the board to remove the current ad.

On the other side of the debate, Richard Colbath-Hess, on the board of the Palestine Advocacy Project, which paid for the current ad, said the T should continue to allow such ads.

“We appreciate the MBTA board’s dilemma around political ads," he said. "We’re a firm supporter of free speech. The solution to speech we don’t like is to have more political speech. Even if the MBTA eliminates political ads, there will still be lawsuits. You’ll have to define what’s political."

Colbath-Hess says his group has "the right to criticize a government" and said that the statistic on the ad was true.

Monday's meeting was at capacity. Several times people who had already testified were asked to leave to allow those outside waiting to get in and share their comments.

After public comment and a brief executive session, an attorney for the T introduced the change to the ad policy for a vote, saying it had been in the works for several weeks before the most recent controversy cropped up.

"The policy will mean we will save litigation costs without doubt," John Englander told the board. "We have had a number of lawsuits about these issues in the past and by making this change those lawsuits will be minimized if not eliminated."

Englander said the new policy is in line with policies currently in effect at the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York and the Chicago Transit Authority.

The board then approved the new policy — which also bans e-cigarette ads — without public discussion. It will go into effect on Dec. 1.

Earlier this year, the T board discussed lifting its ban on alcohol ads. That issue was not discussed on Monday.

The T already bans political campaign speech on its system, like for a particular candidate.

This article was originally published on November 23, 2015.

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Abby Elizabeth Conway was formerly a digital producer and editor at WBUR.

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