Oh Christmas wars, oh Christmas wars, they make lawyers flock gladly.
Oh Christmas wars, oh Christmas wars, they drive the news clicks madly ...
Can somebody help me out here?
We really need some kind of Saturday Night Live worthy cold-open anthem that celebrates/mourns the role that First Amendment fights -- as opposed to waves of shopping-mall news -- now play during the weeks that lead up to the Holy Day once known as the Nativity of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ (see "Christmas").
Most of these annual stories are sad jokes, but some have substance. The latest Washington Post report on the mass-transit advertising wars falls into the second category, raising real issues about public discourse (and the First Amendment) in our tense times.
The headline: "Is Metro waging war on Christmas? Archdiocese sues to post biblical-themed bus ads." Here's the low-key, serious overture:
The Archdiocese of Washington is suing Metro after the transit agency rejected an ad for the organization’s annual “Find the Perfect Gift” charitable campaign, which features a biblical Christmas scene.
In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, attorneys for the archdiocese argue that Metro’s ban on subway and bus ads that “promote . . . any religion, religious practice or belief” has infringed on the organization’s First Amendment rights. ...
The banner ads, designed to be placed on Metrobus exteriors, are relatively minimalist in their design. The display highlights the phrases “Find the Perfect Gift” and “#PerfectGift,” and includes a link to the campaign’s website, which encourages people to attend Mass or donate to a Catholic charitable groups. The words of the ad are overlaid on a tableau of a starry sky; in the corner are three figures bearing shepherd’s rods, along with two sheep.
As a 10-year (or more) regular on DC mass transit, I totally get why this is such a hot-button issue.
We're talking about messages displayed before some of the most tense, picky and politicized eyeballs on Planet Earth. Like everyone else, I stared at bus and subway ads that left me shaking my head. Post 9/11, I also understand that ads on one side of an issue imply the acceptance of those on the other. Try to imagine a safe, non-controversial Metro-ad message about religion, politics and conflicts in the Middle East.
The Post transportation-desk report is solid. Sure, I wanted some kind of input from First Amendment liberals, but that's just me. You can't get everything into a daily news story and I know that from experience. There's another story looming in the background, which is the controversial nature of many ads that Metro has accepted.
For example, this ad campaign certainly raised eyebrows for many riders:
Take that shepherds and wise men.
Meanwhile, those seeking more input can look at some documents linked to this showdown, over at the Archdiocese of Washington website.
Early on, archdiocese spokesman Ed McFadden makes a very interesting point -- which is that under the 2015 policy, commercial Christmas content is now safer than faith-based content. Selling booze? Fine. Saving souls? Nooooooo way.
In the lawsuit, the archdiocese argues that the ad posters “contain no explicit references to religion, religious practice, or belief.” McFadden noted that Metro’s policies allow much more latitude for Christmas-themed ads that are commissioned by commercial entities seeking to get people to buy their products.
“If Christmas comes from a store . . . then it seems [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] approves,” McFadden said. “But if Christmas means a little bit more, WMATA plays Grinch.”
The Post report also offers strong content about other forms of advertising that have collided with the Metro policy. There are some really interesting bedfellows (or maybe bedpersons) in this list, but anyone who knows anything about First Amendment conflicts would expect that.
In the past year, Metro has been sued by the American Civil Liberties Union, an abortion provider, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, controversial author Milo Yiannopoulos and an Egyptian human rights advocate -- all because their respective ads were rejected under the 2015 policy.
The sweeping clampdown on any ads that could be considered politically or socially charged is a significant shift for the transit agency. For years, the agency’s policy was relatively lax. Since the 1980s, the transit system’s stations, trains and buses have played host to ads that mocked President Ronald Reagan, criticized the Catholic Church, claimed that abortions resulted in breast cancer and promoted the legalization of marijuana.
Also, it's interesting that the archdiocese once funded a series of ads that certainly caught my attention, as a rider and as a columnist interested in trends in modern Catholic culture. Thus, archdiocese officials noted:
... (That) they successfully advertised with Metro in the past, commissioning posters in the system in spring 2015 -- months before the new policy was implemented -- that “highlight[ed] the importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation during the liturgical season of Lent.”
Now, one more note to those who read the Post report (and I urge that you do so).
Be sure that you click the blue promo URL embedded in the story that says: "From anti-Reagan art to Milo Yiannopoulos: 35 years of controversial ads on Metro." There is all kinds of interesting content there, including this laugh-to-keep-from-crying window into the current state of public discourse in America.
This story landed after I hit the Beltway exit door, so this caught me by surprise. I almost spewed my Cherry Dr Pepper. One segment of this earlier report noted:
2017 -- In an act of ‘irony,’ Metro bans ACLU’s First Amendment ads
Earlier this year -- and prompted in part by the 2016 presidential election -- the ACLU launched a campaign of PSAs intended to reach people around the country at bus stations, on subway trains, and via billboards from coast to coast.
The message was simple: the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The ads recited the words of the Founding Fathers, in English, Spanish and Arabic.
Metro banned the ad, calling it a violation of their ban on advocacy. New York City’s subway rejected the ad, too, according to Arthur Spitzer of the ACLU.
What can you say? As the old saying goes: Read it and weep.