Metro King County buses broke their own advertising rules so they can help an organization push a message County leaderships agrees with: legalizing safe injection sites. Despite the county’s best efforts to defend the move, the rule breaking is indefensible.
The bus ads in question, first reported by Linzi Sheldon of KIRO 7, say “Safer is better. Supervised consumption spaces prevent fatal overdose.” They were put up by VOCAL-WA and a clear violation of 6.2.6 of their advertising policy. It prohibits “Any advertising that promotes any activity or product that is illegal under federal, state or local law.” Promoting the use of illegal drugs, like heroin, is against federal, state and local law. Beyond that, their rules also indicate that they should stay away from “controversial” advertising, though they seem unclear the parameters that would justify labeling an issue controversial.
When I first asked Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer how the ad is not in violation of that rule, Switzer ignored my question, aiming to simply say the department reviewed and approved the billboard. Yeah, no kidding. But why? After a joint investigation with KIRO 7, it became clear they were struggling to find a reason. They changed their defense twice, originally stating the billboard was challenging a law (it was not), then settling on it being a billboard challenging a public policy, which is protected by the First Amendment (though, to avoid answering certain questions, Switzer, during a sit-down interview with me and Sheldon, reminded us he’s not a lawyer so he couldn’t comment on legal issues).
During the interview, Switzer would routinely read from a set of prepared remarks, no doubt crafted over the days they stalled to set up an interview with us. He confirmed he checked with the King County Prosecutor’s office for guidance, though refused to explain what the guidance was, citing privilege. (I should note: the prosecutor, Dan Satterberg, endorses safe injection sites.)
There is still plenty wrong with their rule breaking. They are correct to assert that the billboard is protected speech. I don’t want the billboard taken down. But their rules don’t indicate that they look at advertisements through the lens of the First Amendment. In fact, if they did, most of their rules would be inadmissible. They prevent, for example, political campaign speech from appearing on their buses when political speech is absolutely protected speech. But it’s the campaign rule that they’ll use to their advantage.
Under 6.2.1 of their policy, they can turn down “advertising that promotes… initiatives…” Oh, how about that? That means the campaign promoting Initiative 27 – which would ban safe injection sites in King County – can’t use Metro buses to advertise their campaign. Yet, an advertisement that promotes safe injection sites, against Metro rules, is able to advertise.
To any honest person, this is an egregious abuse of power and willful rule breaking, no matter what their defense. Metro is doing the bidding of county leadership. King County Executive Dow Constantine, King County Sheriff John Urquhart, and Satterberg all support safe injection sites. And Metro is offering some help to the campaign to bring safe injection sites to King County.
Beyond the abuse, their policy, as it’s written, leads to a chilling of free speech. Metro could cite no portion of their policy that suggested they also consult First Amendment case law when reviewing ads, nor did Switzer indicate how much weight that review might have. Further, he kept claiming that because the VOCAL-WA billboard is about public policy (which is Metro’s guess since they claim they never contacted the group to find out their intent), it was approved. Content that speaks out against public policy is not addressed in their rules. If you’re an organization that advocates illegal behavior as a means to challenge current public policy, if you read the rules, you might not send in your ad since it would be a clear violation. Little do these organizations know that Metro will break rules when it services their leadership.
This is not a story about safe injection sites, as some rabid critics of this story have suggested. Quite the opposite: I want to debate this topic and want the billboards up. Instead, this is a story of Metro’s abuse of power and it’s wrong. Perhaps it’s time to submit ads to Metro to see how consistent they’ll be with their newfound rule breaking?