The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority says no more political or issue-based advertisements will appear at its stations or on its vehicles this year, an apparent response to a New York group’s latest attempt place potentially incindiary billboards around DC’s public transportation network.
While Metro spokesman Dan Stessel tells Washingtonian the move, which was approved unanimously during Thursday’s board meeting, is unrelated to any specific advertisement, the timing and circumstances are impossible to overlook. The decision comes one day after Pamela Geller, an anti-Islam activist, announced she would be purchasing ad space to display the winning artwork from a “Draw Muhammad” contest she staged earlier this month. (Depictions of the prophet are barred by Islamic law.) The contest, held in Garland, Texas, made headlines nationallly after two gunmen started a firefight with security guards outside the venue hosting the event. While both gunmen were killed, the terror group ISIS claimed responsibility for their actions.
“Pursuant to its powers…to regulate the use of facilities owned or controlled by the Authority, the Board hereby directs management to close WMATA’s advertising space to any and all issue-oriented advertising, including but not limited to, political, religious, and advocacy advertising until the end of the calendar year,” the WMATA resolution reads. “During this period, the board will review what role such issue-oriented advertising has in WMATA’s mission to deliver safe, equitable, and reliable transportation services to the Nation’s Capital, and will seek public comment and participation for its consideration before making a final policy determination.”
Stessel says Geller’s name never came up in the discussion leading up to the ad ban, but the Washington Post‘s Paul Duggan reports that her planned ads gave at least one member of Metro’s board a fright.
Metro official says agency fears a cartoon ad of the Prophet Muhammad would make buses and subway stations “terrorists targets.”
— Paul Duggan (@dugganwapo) May 28, 2015
This would hardly be the first time Geller has provoked a change in Metro’s advertising policy. In 2012, the transit agency refused to post billboards by her group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, that featured Koran verses accompanied by photographs of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Geller sued, and a judge ordered the transit agency that it could not decline ads based on their political stripes; Metro attached disclaimers to political ads following the ruling.
Although political ads make up a significant portion of Metro’s advertising revenue, overall ad sales are a puny segment of the cash-strapped transit agency’s budget. Metro’s projected ad revenue for the current fiscal year—calculated long before this decision—is just $20 million, compared to $48 million in parking fees and $835 million in passenger fares. There is no word yet on how much of a financial toll will come from cutting out political ads.