DC Metro bans 'issue' ads after Muhammad cartoon request

DC Metro bans 'issue' ads after Muhammad cartoon request
© Anne Wernikoff

The Washington, D.C., transit system banned all “issue-oriented” advertisements from Metro stations and buses on Thursday, after receiving a request to run ads showing the Prophet Muhammad.

The Metro board agreed to a motion from Chairman Mort Downey to ban political, religious and other issue ads through the rest of the year, a spokesman confirmed.

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“In the coming months, Metro will fully consider the impact that issue-related advertisements have on the community by gathering input from riders, local community groups and advocates,” spokesman Michael Tolbert said in a statement. “Metro will also carefully examine the legal concerns related to displaying, or discontinuing the display of, issue-related advertisements.”

At the end of the year, the board will decide whether or not to continue the ban.

The action came two days after the head of the group behind a “Draw Muhammad” event that sparked a shooting in Texas submitted the winning cartoon to run as an ad on Metro buses and in five subway stations around Washington and suburban Maryland. 

Downey’s request may have been a direct response to the submission from Pamela Geller, the head of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), which has been labeled an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

A spokesman with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) had previously said that the agency was reviewing the cartoon before deciding whether to approve the ad purchase. Without changing its rules, Metro would likely have been forced to either run the cartoon as an ad, as Geller had requested, or face a possible lawsuit.

Geller’s organization was not mentioned during Thursday’s meeting, the spokesman said.

Muslims consider depictions of the Prophet Muhammad to be offensive.

In early May, the AFDI advertised a $10,000 prize for the winner of its “Draw Muhammad” event in Garland, Texas, which supporters claimed was an exercise of the right to free speech. 

After driving 1,000 miles from Phoenix, two gunmen opened fire on a police car outside the event; they were quickly killed by guards.

Metro stations and buses are common canvasses for political groups in Washington, and have occasionally become the subject of fierce controversy.

In 2012, a federal judge forced the Washington and New York transit systems to run AFDI posters that said: “In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

This year, the AFDI also won lawsuits in Philadelphia and New York forcing bus and subway lines to display their ads.  

New York's transit agency voted to ban political ads on subways and buses in April.  

This story was updated at 3:53 p.m.