Banned in Boston: Scott Brown ad too “political,” says MBTA

UPDATE: Politico has picked up this story.  :-)

Thank goodness the MBTA is around to protect the tender, delicate sensibilities of its riders.  Otherwise, they might have had to look at this ad, which a group called wanted to run to call attention to Scott Brown’s vote to eliminate the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. was given very little information regarding the rejection.  I am informed that they simply received the following email, from the contractor that handles advertising for the T:

From: Titan 360

Date: Wed, Jun 8, 2011 at 5:05 AM

Hi All,

Unfortunately, the MBTA did not approve of this creative due to its political stance, and we will not be able to install the campaign.

Sorry for the long wait and inconvenience. We will issue our own internal paperwork to cancel the contract.

Obviously, there is nothing indecent about the ad.  Some riders may disagree with’s point of view, but so what?  Do we really want the MBTA – a government agency – deciding which viewpoints are suitable for advertising, and which aren’t?

Consider another recent example: as you may recall, the rapture was supposed to happen on May 21, according to a rather extreme interpretation of certain biblical writings by a guy who also happened to have a lot of money.  He plastered ads announcing the event all over the country, including on MBTA buses.  But when it turned out that – surprise! – Family Radio also harbors certain anti-gay sentiments, the T’s general manager came out with a series of muddled responses, first saying that the T took down the ad because of Family Radio’s views, and then later claiming that the ads actually came down because the campaign expired, but that “content of future ads to undergo more scrutiny.”

Here’s yet another example, which dates from several years ago and so may not reflect current policy, but is nonetheless illustrative of the kind of line the T is trying to draw.  This ad was rejected:

The MBTA said the advertisement for the movie “Tomcats” was “degrading to women.”

“We have a responsibility to our passengers. They can’t change the channel if they are on a bus,” said Brian Pedro, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

That ad is obviously not “obscene” in the First Amendment sense, nor does it approach what is routinely seen even on TV, to say nothing of an R-rated movie.  So what’s the right policy for the MBTA’s advertising?  Should they take all comers, as long as they don’t cross the First Amendment line (i.e., fighting words, hate speech, obscenity, or other unprotected categories)?  Or can the T be more selective, refusing to run ads that they think might offend, or at least make uncomfortable, some portion of their ridership?  If so, what is the right line to draw?  Is it too much to ask a bus rider to look somewhere else if he or she is offended by a message criticizing Scott Brown?  Or by the ad for “Tomcats”?

I have asked the T for information on their advertising policy, and will update or write a new post if/when they get back to me.

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13 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Petition the MBTA

    According to the MBTA Board’s last meeting on June 8th, the advertisements was NOT discussed.

    This would suggest that the decision was made by a bureaucrat within MBTA. Ultimately, the official that is accountable for this decision is the MBTA’s general manager Richard Davey (who draws a “comfortable” $145,000 annual salary) and he can be reached at:

    stopscott2012   @   Wed 15 Jun 11:35 AM
  2. Good points

    As a quasi-public entity, the idea of content-based “censorship” by the T is a little troubling, especially since it is very rare for them to reject straightforward corporate speech. Personally, I’m a little offended by liquor ads, as I think the product itself is insidious, and from experience am acutely aware of some of the social costs associated with alcohol abuse. But that’s my problem, and the T runs liquor ads constantly. I wouldn’t expect the T to cancel all alcoholic beverage ads just because I don’t like them. So this rejection of political speech, either by a single bureaucrat or a committee, bothers me.

    • They also canned the Legal Sea Food's insult fish, didn't they?

      My recollection, is that after folks complained, they took down the LSF ads with a fish that said things like “people on this bus smell.” So if enough folks complained, they would take down the liquor ads, but since not enough do, they stay up.

      I’m of two minds on this, one the one hand, it seems like first amendment rules should apply, so anything goes. On the other, the MBTA probably should have a ‘community standard’ for its ads. Do they allow other public service, or political ads? If so, I’d say this ad should have been approved – if not, they’re being consistent and it’s likely that the ‘bureaucrats’ are best placed to understand what the community standard is.

      • On liquor and legal

        We wouldn’t put ads for liquor up on a schoolbus. How many kids ride the MBTA to school every day?

        As for legal, I think one of the ads made a joke about an MBTA conductor… “This conductor has a face like a halibut.” I thought it was appropriate for the MBTA to stand by their employees in that case.

        I think that should sue the MBTA.

        • Good memory re the fish ad!

          I’m going to try to put together a post regarding ads previously banned by the T. If anyone else remembers a good one, let me know!

  3. Hey, I've got an idea

    Dump advertising!

    I for one hate looking at all that visual clutter when I ride. Plus, if it is a public utility, the public should be paying for it, mostly through taxes, but I’ll tske a small fare increase too. I especially don’t like instances like the above photo where the entire bus is wrapped in an advertisement, as if the MBTA were a wholy-owned subsidiary of the advertiser.

    • Obvious problem:

      substantial revenue hit. Only alternative: fare hike, which necessarily hits low-income T users harder than anyone else. Bad policy. Advertising may be unsightly, but it doesn’t cost anything to look at.

      • I'd be more than happy for the T to be completely fare-free.

        We provide other public services, like schools, libraries, and roads, without either user fees or advertising for the most part.

      • Not the only alternative

        The state could make it a policy and provide the lost revenue via general taxes. Or a thousand other ways.

        Thing is, I hate ads. But, the T needs cash. Every penny. Of all the ways to make the T better, eliminating ads doesn’t seem like the best bang for your buck.

        That written, I do think that alcohol ads on the side of a school bus are inappropriate — and therefore, I think that they’re inappropriate in the T.

  4. The T should allow political ads

    I don’t see what the issue is. I suppose current officeholders could wield influence? They already do. Let the T get all the revenue it can from political ads.

  5. The Hill Also Picked up Bob Massie's Demands to the MBTA GM

    Possible Sen. Brown Challenger Criticizes Transit Authority for Refusing Ads

  6. In today's Globe

    I was surprised that was also doing this campaign against Sherrod Brown.

    The organization will instead hire bicyclists to ride around town with the ad on the July Fourth weekend, Haigh said. It is lodging a similar campaign that takes aim at Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat.

    That really wasn’t clear to me from the DailyKos piece either. But I also can’t figure out who said “too controversial” as McKibben is claiming. Nobody will source that. From your post it looks like a standard rejection on the MBTA political ad policy.

    Can you give me any instance of an ad with a politician in it that’s been on the trains? Everyone I talked to about this can’t remember a single one.

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