This guest Slog post is by Howard J. Gale, PhD, a Seattle research psychologist, peace activist, and member of the Seattle Jewish community with family and friends in Israel.
When King County Executive Dow Constantine decided on December 23 to pull contracted Metro bus ads stating “Israeli War Crimes—Your Tax Dollars at Work,” I wrote a letter, signed by over 46 members of the Seattle Jewish community, questioning that decision. During a 50-minute meeting with Constantine on January 10, he made it clear to me that the decision to ban these bus ads was based on his belief that there were serious threats—based on hard evidence—to the safety of passengers and Metro drivers. I was left with the conclusion that fear generated by serious threats of violence, rather than pressure from advocacy groups, was the central factor in his decision to pull the bus ads.
Two months later I must reassess this conclusion based on evidence revealed (1) in the February 14 Federal Court case brought by the ACLU against King County for First Amendment violations, and (2) in the documents released to me by King County in response to a request under the Washington State Public Records Act.
In response to the ACLU legal action, King County has been forced to present evidence of the claimed threats of violence. A review of this evidence shows that the threats Constantine said he found so alarming consisted of six emails that arrived at King County prior to Constantine's decision to pull the ads (all the evidence is available on the ACLU of WA website. Two of the six “threat” emails were veiled threats (e.g., “WE JEWS ARE NOT THE SAME AS THE JEWS OF EUROPE DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR!! WE GET PISSED OFF, WE TAKE ACTION!!!”), one suggested non-violent civil disobedience, one stated the intent to "organize a riot at your bus stops," one to "shut Metro down," and one simply stated "forcing me to violence." All of these emails had real names and email addresses connected to them, suggesting that these folks had little, if any, intent on carrying out their stated actions. To my knowledge, none of these threats were investigated by law enforcement.
It's worth noting that five of these six "threats" come from self-identified members of the Jewish community, with the sixth threat from a person running a Washington state group supporting the Israel Defense Forces.
As a Jew I find these people to be an embarrassment to our community, and hope that the same groups that criticized the bus ads will make public statements as to the inappropriate and shameful nature of this behavior. It is also necessary for these six people to come forward with an apology and clarification as to their real intentions, hopefully before their names are released publicly.
Central to the Federal Court ruling on February 18 rejecting the ACLU request for an injunction against the bus ad removal, and to the ongoing case, is the question as to whether King County has acted in a "viewpoint neutral" manner in deciding what is appropriate advertising for its buses. That is, does the County use objective standards, independent of the political or religious nature of the ads, to determine what goes on buses?
Given the evidence revealed in court, King County will find it impossible to demonstrate viewpoint neutrality here. They will have to prove that this is the first time in over 30 years that they have received four to six questionable threats in response to a bus ad. For example, in the spring of 1993 Metro ran the very provocative Rush Limbaugh bus wraps, causing many Metro drivers to express concerns for their safety and to refuse to drive such buses. Did they receive less than six threats in response to the Limbaugh ads? Were less than six threats received in response to many other controversial bus ad campaigns? As we look at over three decades of past bus ad campaigns in Seattle we will find that the claim of viewpoint neutrality can not be supported. It will prove impossible for King County to specify objective criteria.
The situation for Dow Constantine, and King County, starts to look ever more ridiculous when one investigates the “over 6,000” emails that King County claims it received on the bus ad issue. The county has responded to my public records request with over 16,000 documents to date. However, the documents provided by the county are not emails: They are graphic image files (TIFF files) of individual “pages” of emails. Despite County claims to the contrary, these TIFF files are the result of printing out emails and then scanning them—how else to explain many emails appearing as multiple TIFF files that are 8.5”x11” in size with random specks of toner and the paper edges visible in the image? By arbitrarily*—or intentionally?—supplying records in this format it makes it extremely difficult to sort and analyze these records, or even ascertain the true number of emails. This is indicative of a petty attempt to interfere with government transparency, in the process wasting taxpayer money and violating the Washington State Attorney General's “Model Rules on Public Disclosure.”
I have learned a few things from going through the first batch of 6,702 documents. First, the number of emails that shaped Constantine's decision to pull the ads has been grossly overestimated by King County, based on the fact that: (1) 1,369 of the documents are junk files of random characters; (2) many individual emails consist of anywhere from two to over 100 TIFF files; (3) there are a fair number of emails counted multiple times (probably due to the same email being forwarded to multiple King County addresses); (4) a very large number of the emails arrived at King County after the decision was made on December 23; and (5) at least 3,008 individual emails arrived at King County offices on December 23rd between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. as a result of a mass appeal from the powerful Texas based group “Christians United for Israel,” all these emails being 100 percent identical except for the name on the very last line (in fact, this group claims to have generated nearly 6,000 emails in this short period of time). Estimating the real number of emails will require further analysis, but it is now clear that King County's claim of over 6,000 emails creating concern will probably end up as less than 2,000 (not all of which were against the ads).
The emails from “Christians United for Israel” are noteworthy. This is a group founded and run by the right-wing, fundamentalist, evangelical, global-warming-denying, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-Catholic, anti-Islam, and anti-Semitic Texas Pastor John Hagee. The guy that said in his 2006 book, "It was the disobedience and rebellion of the Jews, God's chosen people, to their covenantal responsibility to serve only the one true God, Jehovah, that gave rise to the opposition and persecution that they experienced beginning in Canaan and continuing to this very day.” The guy that blamed America's economic woes on the Jewish Rothschild banking family. How ironic that the email campaign directed at hate speech that never existed (the bus ads) is orchestrated by a longstanding purveyor of anti-Semitic, and very wide ranging, hate speech. Will groups like the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the Anti-Defamation League denounce this?
There are also the broader questions. Most notably, why have similar ads been allowed on the transit systems—actually train systems far more vulnerable to disruption—of other cities (San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, DC)? Why did this not result in violence or disruption in these cities? Did Constantine contact these cities to ascertain whether six diffuse threats is the correct number to necessitate an abridgment of free speech rights? Did Constantine consider the threats that might result from pulling the bus ads (there are many outraged and angry emails protesting the removal of the ads that were sent after December 23)? Maybe the threats that resulted from pulling the ads were far greater?
n his declaration to the Federal Court, Constantine states that the ads were “objectionable to our local community” and “insulting and offensive.” These statements depart radically from what I was told on January 10. They also indicate, once more, actions that are not “viewpoint neutral."
Mr. Constantine has now trapped himself into defending a decision born of fear and bias, and in the process wasting County resources in a legal battle. The result of this will be either a legal and financial defeat for the county or a Pyrrhic victory in which Mr. Constantine succeeds in destroying a nearly four-decade-old forum for free speech. In either case Mr. Constantine has also succeeded in defaming those who are engaged in human rights work by claiming their message is objectionable, insulting, and offensive. There is no good outcome here.
* King County claims that the reason they have provided TIFF files is because “TIFF formatting has certain advantages such as bates numbering.” Bates numbering is common in court documents, where an arbitrary and unique identifier is printed on each page. Software exists for “Bates numbering” in every conceivable digital format — there is nothing unique or special about TIFF files. There is no Washington State requirement, or even suggestion, that Public Records requests have or use Bates numbering.