Go Round and Round: Muni's Weird Relationship with Ads, Guns, and Middle Eastern Politics

Last week, an odd back-and-forth precipitated in the Board of Supervisors chambers in which Scott Wiener was left to explain to John Avalos the origins of the state of Israel. So you can't say the latest round of Mideast politicking on the sides of Muni buses hasn't had any effect. But if the intended outcome of those ads — or the vitriolic Muslim-bashing ads preceding it — was any sort of remotely beneficial activity regarding the Mideast quagmire, that has yet to materialize. They have, however, spotlighted yet another baffling Muni policy.

When Muni, citing First Amendment concerns, accepted ads displaying actual quotes from Muslim extremists, it was compelled to hand over the $15,780 fee to the Human Rights Commission — to fund a study, in part, examining the effect of those very ads on area Muslims. But when Muni, citing First Amendment concerns, accepted ads displaying an actual quote by Desmond Tutu likening Israel to an apartheid state, it got to pocket the $5,030. Muni spokesman Paul Rose says there's no quantifiable process to determine what to do with controversial ad money. But Muni won't deliver the cash from the anti-Israel ads to the HRC — as Wiener and five of his board colleagues requested — as "there isn't a study to transfer those funds to fund."

This struck Wiener as a profound missing of the point. "It's a gesture about Muni not accepting the money and instead giving it to an agency promoting human rights," he says. "It doesn't matter if there's a study formed on this community or that community." Theresa Sparks, the HRC's executive director, also seemed flummoxed by Muni's rationale, noting that a viable study could be brainstormed in "about 15 minutes."

Wiener has suggested Muni consider an ad policy akin to one adopted this month by the Chicago Transit Authority to curtail "political or public issue advertising."

Muni's ad policy was not carried down from Mount Sinai, and has changed much through the years. Currently, Muni will not accept ads which "concern a declared political candidate or ballot measure." But fans of the 1971 film Dirty Harry may recall the titular character hopping off a J-Church emblazoned with an ad to elect "Peter Finnegan!" supervisor. (Finnegan lost, but believes that, had the movie come out before the election, it would have made his day).

Policies barring ads that "appear to promote the use of firearms" led Muni to censor guns out of action movie posters. But the agency in 2010 caved on this policy when the Second Amendment Foundation submitted an ad featuring a shotgun-toting woman to promote its "Gun Rights Policy Conference."

The American Muslims for Palestine's Israeli Apartheid ad, incidentally, features a silhouette of an Israeli soldier leveling a rifle at a child. It's unclear whether this would have been acceptable under the rules since neutered by the Second Amendment Foundation.

And you thought Muni brought together an interesting mix of society on the inside of the bus.

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