Washington Metro Rejects Simple IHR Ad,
Absurdly Citing Irrelevant Guidelines

News from Institute for Historical Review
July 2017

This advertisement was accepted, and then rejected, for display on digital panels in Washington, DC, subway mezzanine areas. If the Transit Authority can justify banning this simple message, says IHR director Weber, it can justify banning anything.

The Washington, D.C., transit authority has rejected an advertisement that was to appear on large digital display screens in mezzanine areas of the District’s subway system, claiming that its simple two-word message, “History Matters!,” violates its guidelines.

After considerable planning and discussion, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) approved the ad’s design and content, and signed a contract with the California-based educational and publishing center. But on April 25, shortly before it was to go up, the Authority informed the IHR that, on further consideration, it had decided to reject the ad.

It absurdly claimed that the ad violates guidelines that prohibit ads “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions,” and that “are intended to influence public policy.”

The advertisement (shown here) consists of the words “History Matters!” superimposed on an image of a globe, along with the name of the sponsoring organization and the IHR logo and website address.

“By any rational standard,” says IHR director Mark Weber, “the guidelines cited by the Transit Authority do not reasonably apply to this ad. If the Authority an justify banning a 'History Matters!' display, it can justify banning anything. The Authority certainly would not have objected if this display had been sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, or a major university. The decision to reject it was clearly not based on any sincere disagreement with its message. Instead, it seems to have been motivated entirely by unhappiness with the views – or what it imagines are the views -- of the IHR, or of authors or items published by IHR.”

The Institute’s view of the Washington Metro decision is explained in greater detail in a June 12 letter by an attorney representing the IHR to WMATA General Counsel Patricia Y. Lee. The IHR attorney wrote:

I am writing on behalf of Mark Weber and the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) concerning WMATA’s decision to reject a proposed digital display advertisement on the purported ground of non-compliance with WMATA’s Guidelines Governing Commercial Advertising
[ https://www.wmata.com/about/records/upload/Advertising_Guidelines.pdf ] ...

On April 25, 2017, Dan Langdon of Outfront Media advised Mark Weber of IHR by email that the proposed digital display advertisement was rejected because it “does not pass the guidelines in their [WMATA’s] Commercial Guidelines, specifically guidelines #9 and #14.” Guideline 9 prohibits advertisements “intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions ...” Guideline 14 prohibits advertisements that “are intended to influence public policy ...”

Neither of these guidelines reasonably applies to the proposed IHR digital display. Taking Guideline 9, does WMATA seriously contend that “History Matters” is an “issue on which there are varying opinions ...?” Is WMATA aware of a “History Doesn’t Matter” faction, also clamoring to be heard? Similarly, for purposes of Guideline 14, what “public policy” decision turns on persuading the electorate or its representatives that history does or does not matter?

On any reasonable reading, the two-word phrase on the proposed display is no more controversial, and has no greater public-policy significance, than “Reading is Good for You” or “Get More Exercise and Eat a Balanced Diet.”

Given the proposed ad’s innocuous content, WMATA’s objection can only be based upon factors extrinsic to the ad, such as WMATA’s disagreement with the views (or what it imagines to be the views) expressed elsewhere by Mr. Weber, IHR or the authors of content published by IHR. But this an impermissible ground for rejection of the ad, for two reasons.

First, the Guidelines refer only to advertisements themselves – not to opinions that the authors or sponsors of advertisements might have expressed elsewhere. To apply guidelines aimed at advertisements to matters not contained in those advertisements is inherently unreasonable.

Second, it is highly improbable that WMATA would have objected to the statement “History Matters” if it had come from the Smithsonian Institution or the faculty of the Georgetown University History Department. But governmental restrictions on speech, based upon disagreement with the views of the speakers, are forbidden by the First Amendment.

More recently, WMATA decided to remove already-installed posters that promote a new book by controversial writer Milo Yiannopoulos, referring to the same guidelines it had cited in its earlier rejection of the proposed IHR ad. (See, for example, the Washingtonian report:
https://www.washingtonian.com/2017/07/07/milo-yiannopoulos-says-wmata-decision-to-remove-book-ads-is-unconstitutional/ )

The Institute for Historical Review (IHR) is an independent educational center and publisher that works to promote peace, understanding and justice through greater public awareness of the past, and especially socially-politically relevant aspects of modern history. It is recognized by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(3) public interest, educational, not-for-profit enterprise. Founded in 1978, the IHR is non-partisan, non-ideological, and non-sectarian. Its offices are located in Orange County, southern California. (More information about the IHR and its work is posted at: http://www.ihr.org/main/about.shtml )