A human rights group is criticizing Metro’s decision to turn down an ad campaign highlighting “hateful rhetoric” from global political leaders that features depictions of President Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Amnesty International intended to place the ads inside the Metro system in advance of its annual general meeting, which is being held at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center in Rockville this weekend. The organization released its annual report on global human rights to coincide with the meeting.
“Our key message is about a new era of activism, which we believe is a response to regressive policies and hateful rhetoric coming from prominent leaders,” spokeswoman Kharunya Paramaguru said.
The ads alternately feature Trump, Putin and Kim and read “A Storm Is Brewing,” with text below that says “Together We Are Powerful. Join The Movement.” They also feature a number to text to “Defend Human Rights.” Amnesty International submitted the ads to Metro on Feb. 12, anticipating a four-week ad campaign at a cost of $35,000.
Metro rejected the ads on the grounds that they violate its policy against issue-oriented advertising. The policy has been cited in the rejection of other recent campaigns, raising questions of whether it is too vague or restrictive for a public transit system — especially one in the nation’s capital.
Metro cited two provisions of the policy in rejecting the Amnesty International ads. One says: “Advertisements intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions are prohibited.” The other says: “Advertisements that are intended to influence public policy are prohibited.”
Amnesty International argued in a statement Thursday that the policy is too restrictive.
“It’s deeply unfortunate that advocacy ads are so notoriously hard to place in our nation’s capital — exactly the market where they’re needed the most,” said Margaret Huang, Amnesty International USA’s executive director.
The dispute was first reported by TMZ.
Metro’s advertising ban has been controversial since it was enacted in 2015. Among the recent casualties of the strict provisions: a campaign from the Archdiocese of Washington, which sought to promote its #FindThePerfectGift campaign on Metrobuses during the holiday season. The ads encouraged attendance at Catholic Mass and charitable donations during the holidays. In another case, Metro cited the issue-oriented ad ban when it rejected a $20,000 campaign drawing attention to human rights abuses in Egypt — ads that were meant to coincide with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s visit to Washington last year.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld Metro’s ban on the Christmas-themed ad late last year, after the archdiocese challenged it in court. The U.S. Justice Department sided with the archdiocese in the legal battle in January, and the case is ongoing.
In another case, Metro banned an ad from the American Civil Liberties Union that featured the text of the First Amendment of the Constitution in three languages: English, Spanish and Arabic. Metro said the ad was a violation of its ban on advocacy.
Metro implemented the advertising ban in 2015, after an anti-Muslim group tried to place ads on Metro that showed a cartoon with an offensive depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Instead of allowing the ad, the agency banned issue-oriented advertising in the system outright.
Officials feared such inflammatory messaging could lead to security threats. Weeks earlier, a “draw Muhammad” cartoon exhibit in Garland, Tex., was interrupted by gunfire when two men with semiautomatic rifles opened fire on police and injured a security guard. The gunmen were shot and killed by an officer.
Huang argued that the Amnesty International ads do not take a political stance, despite the choice of visuals — prominent political figures — to promote the group’s message.
“Governments and heads of state are accountable to international human rights laws. We don’t pick and choose which governments to criticize, we criticize every government that violates human rights,” Huang said. “The message of our ads was a simple one asking people to join us in upholding human rights, which is not and should not be a political or partisan issue. We’re very disappointed with [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s] decision, but we will continue to find a way to get our message out to defend human rights both here at home and around the world.”