A former political prisoner has taken his protest to Metro’s front door after the transit agency rejected his $20,000 subway and bus ad campaign highlighting human rights abuses in Egypt.
The ads display information about political activists who have been killed or imprisoned in Egypt and are timed to coincide with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s upcoming visit to Washington, planned for the first week of April.
One ad says, “Egyptian prisons hold thousands of dissidents, many in cruel and inhuman conditions.” Another: “Egypt ranks third in the world for the number of journalists imprisoned.” One simply reads: “#FREEDOMFIRST Coming Soon.”
But Metro rejected the campaign, saying the ads violate the agency’s ban on “issues-oriented advertising.”
“Advertisements intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions are prohibited,” say the agency’s guidelines, which Metro cited in response to questions about its rejection of the campaign by Mohamed Soltan.
Metro declined to answer any other questions related to the dispute.
Meanwhile, Soltan has hired a truck with a digital advertising screen to park in front of Metro headquarters near Judiciary Square, displaying the messages.
Soltan, a 29-year-old Fairfax City resident and U.S. citizen, has a close connection to the issues highlighted in the ads. He spent nearly two years imprisoned in Egypt and was tortured, he said, after being sentenced to life for “transmitting false news” while live-tweeting a violent government crackdown on protesters opposing a military coup.
Soltan, who raised the money for the ads, argues that they do not offer an opinion or advocate for a policy position. Instead, he said, they state facts and statistics, attributed to nonprofit organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“It’s not an opinion or an ‘issue-based’ anything,” said Soltan, who is considering suing the transit agency over its decision. “It’s just facts, education. It’s very basic.”
It’s not the first time Metro has been involved in a dispute over its ad policy, and this incident is the latest in a slew of legal skirmishes around the country involving free speech and advertising on transit. Transit agencies in New York, Boston and Seattle have dealt with similar controversies in recent years, as has Metro.
Metro’s policy against “issues-oriented” advertisements has been in place since 2015, when a controversial pro-Israel group called the American Freedom Defense Initiative attempted to place ads on Metro that depicted an offensive caricature of the prophet Muhammad. Metro officials worried that the advertisements could be dangerous.
Weeks earlier, the cartoon had been displayed at a Muhammad cartoon exhibit and contest in Garland, Tex. Two men, apparently offended by the event, opened fire with semiautomatic rifles outside the building. A security guard was wounded, and the two men were shot and killed by a police officer.
“I think there’s a potential threat and a danger if we were to accept that ad,” Metro board member Michael Goldman said then. “Better to be safe than sorry.”
While imprisoned in Egypt, Soltan embarked on a months-long hunger strike and nearly died before intervention by the Obama administration helped garner his release and return to the United States in 2015. His father, Salah Soltan, a political dissident, was sentenced to death and remains in prison there.
Since his return to the United States, Mohamed Soltan has advocated for others who he says remain in Egyptian custody without justification. The advertising campaign planned for Metro was funded by private citizens in the United States, many from the Egyptian diaspora, who support his mission.
Soltan approached Metro’s advertising contractor, Outfront Media, two weeks ago to inquire about placing the ads throughout the transit network. He agreed to a $20,000 package that would buy ad space on 250 Metro cars, in 45 stations and on 25 buses for two weeks — pending Metro’s approval of the sign design.
Several days later, Outfront returned with word from Metro: The signs violated its policies.
“Anything could be political, depending on how you look at it,’” Soltan said. “By whose lens? By whose measure? It can be so loosely interpreted. What we have here is a fact, and it’s a fact from world-renowned human rights organizations. . . . We’re just educating people about facts and things that are happening.”
Soltan likened the agency’s ban on issues-based advertising with the censorship and acts of oppression in Egypt that he advocates against.
“The irony is that, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, we have to have this battle here at home,” he said. “To have a quasi-governmental agency like [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] that is censoring facts — it’s very, very disheartening.”
Federal courts have already ruled decisively that transit agencies cannot selectively ban advertisements that they deem too offensive to appear in stations and buses. Instead of allowing the anti-Muslim cartoon campaign, Metro took the option that is increasingly prevalent at other transit agencies: They chose to ban all “issues-oriented” advertising.
Now, its guidelines cover a range of prohibited advertising themes: signs that promote or oppose any religion or religious belief; messages that are “intended to influence public policy”; or political campaign advertising — a serious blow to Metro’s pool of potential advertisers, considering the region is home to the nation’s capital.
Other transit agencies across the country have adopted similarly broad policies — usually resulting from costly lawsuits — that cover things they believe would be controversial, offensive or incite violence.
Rebecca Tushnet, a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in commercial speech and advertising law, said Metro’s success in a potential lawsuit would hinge on its ability to prove that its policy is consistently enforced — and just because an advertisement displays attributed facts or statistics does not mean that it won’t be considered politically themed, she said.
“I understand the desire not to have a swastika or aborted fetus shoved in my face when I’m on a train and really a captive audience because I can’t leave while I’m in there,” Tushnet said. “As a compromise, the kind of blanket commercial-versus-political distinction makes a lot of sense.”
But Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia, said Metro may be in a precarious legal position if a court finds that the agency’s policy is excessively broad. Almost any kind of subway advertisement — be it an advocacy poster, commercial advertising or a government-sponsored public service announcement — could be considered an attempt to “influence members of the public,” she argued. She said Metro’s policy should be far more narrowly tailored, especially in a political place like Washington.
“Hundreds of thousands of Americans and international visitors come through this city, which could be considered the protest capital of the free world,” Hopkins-Maxwell said. “The ability to exchange ideas or come into contact with ideas — whether we agree with them or not — is fundamental to democracy, and it would be a shame if, in a place like D.C., those opportunities are being shut down because the government is afraid of free speech.”