The words “Please Don’t Litter” are about as controversial as “Don’t drive drunk” or “No U-Turn,” but apparently they’re too loaded for officials of the Monterey-Salinas Transit Authority.
The regional bus authority has canceled a $7,605 contract with the Central Coast Recycling Media Coalition to have anti-littering ads placed on the sides of 39 MST buses this summer. The signs had been posted on some of the buses already but were being removed Monday. Meanwhile, officials of the Santa Cruz Metro system said they had no problem with the same ads being posted on buses there.
The ads show a gull and a crab entangled with a cigarette butt and a hamburger container respectively and declare “Please don’t litter. The difference you make is real.”
MST has no problem with the message itself and certainly isn’t in favor of littering, said General Manager Carl Sedoryk. The problem, he said, is that the ads are “issue ads” that take a position rather than promote merchandise or services. While other transit agencies have adopted policies that allow them to exercise discretion over the types of issue ads to accept, Sedoryk said public agencies that accept issue ads could be put in the position of having to accept other issue ads that are more controversial.
Sedoryk said MST’s goal is to avoid controversy and to stick with a simple and clear policy. He said issue ads of almost any sort can lead to efforts to place ads on much more controversial topics such as abortion, religion and gun control.
Though the district’s aim has always been to have a clear policy, determining what amounts to an issue ad and what constitutes a permissible commercial ad can be a “very fine line,” the manager said. Advertising from social service groups and non-profits generally would be accepted if they are promoting a service but not if they are merely promoting a cause, he said. Monterey City Councilwoman Libby Downey, who chairs the MST board, could not be reached to comment Monday.
Transit districts from Seattle to New York have wrestled in recent years with a similar issue but involving advertising far more pointed and controversial than those being rejected here. In 2012, ads placed by a pro-Israel group denouncing Islamists as “savages” led to legal action and a decision by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York to prohibit ads that it “reasonable foresees would immediately incite or promote violence” or an “immediate breach of the peace.” Anti-littering ads presumably would be acceptable under that policy.
In Seattle, ads with Middle Eastern themes prompted transit officials to tighten their advertising policy but the rules were later loosened when the financial impact on the transit authority became clear.
This summer, Middle Eastern advocacy groups have taken out large ads on the sides of District of Columbia Metro buses to argue over the most contentious of issues. The Washington Post reported that one group bought ads featuring a drawing of Uncle Sam waving a Israeli flag and decrying U.S. support for Palestinian occupation, and another group countered with ads featuring a photo of Adolph Hitler and referring to “Islamic Jew-hatred.”
Sedoryk said MST had rejected previous ads as being too political but this was the first time the ads had actually been printed installed on buses.
“The policy was adopted by the board (about a decade ago) and we have to enforce it.” He added, however, that the coalition could choose to appeal the rejection either to him or the authority’s board of directors.
A representative of the Central Coast Recycling Media Coalition said an appeal was likely. The coalition is made up of 24 public agencies and waste disposal operations, including the cities of Monterey, Pacific Grove, Carmel, Del Rey Oaks, Pacific Grove, Salinas and Sand City and Monterey County.