RTD accused of double standard on ‘issue’ ads

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DENVER -- The operators of Denver’s bus and rail system are now under fire for “fact-checking” certain free speech and political ads while leaving others alone.

Before Republicans were allowed to run a political message on the side of a Denver bus, the Regional Transportation District in Denver asked for edits, citing its policy on “false, misleading, or deceptive” advertising.

When a pair of animal rights groups wanted to run political messages on the side of Denver buses, RTD again asked for edits, making certain all the facts checked out. One of the recommendations was so drastic, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) walked away without buying the space.

When a pro-Palestinian group wanted to run ads on the side of a Denver bus accusing Israel of war crimes and apartheid, RTD approved the message with no edits – except to change the color of a banner from red to yellow.

A months-long FOX31 Denver Problem Solvers investigation into how RTD makes decisions about issue advertisements uncovered a string of inconsistent decisions seemingly at odds with its written policy.

FOX31 Problem Solvers used Colorado Open Records laws to examine why RTD waived forward a controversial Anti-Israel ad while denying proposed campaigns submitted by Republicans and animal rights groups.

Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne found what appeared to be an uneven playing field.

When it comes to what messages get onto the side of a bus RTD’s written policy is simple.

They won’t accept ads for commercial products that are obscene or that pitch an illegal product and for “issue ads” RTD will not display anything false, misleading, or deceptive.

Late last year, pro-Palestinian groups made a splash around Denver buying bus ads implying Israel is guilty of war crimes and sending visitors to a website about “ethnic cleansing.”

RTD took the money then went on the defensive putting out a press release saying in part “political type-ads” are a “public forum” which there are “very limited controls.”

RTD spokesperson, Scott Reed told Halsne during a recent video interview, “You end up in a situation where you don’t like the ad, you don’t necessarily agree with it, but because of the fact it’s politically protected free speech it must be allowed to run otherwise it will result in a legal challenge.”

However, public records sought and obtained by FOX31 Problem Solvers show while RTD found nothing deceptive about the war crimes ad it had no troubles flagging, denying, and editing some other issue advertisements.

For example, FOX31 Denver uncovered a string of emails, contract changes, and other correspondence between the Colorado Citizens for Canine Welfare, RTD and RTD’s advertising partner, Lamar.

The records showed RTD intervened to “deny,” editorialize, then change the images and words on the canine group’s proposed bus billboard messages.

President of Colorado Citizens for Canine Welfare, Dr. Cheryl Saipe, says the group wanted a special ad placed on the back of twenty buses around Christmas 2013.

The banner originally said, “END PUPPY MILLS – SAY NO TO PET SHOPS AND ONLINE SELLERS – ADOPT!

Records show RTD said no and stamped that version “denied.”

Halsne: “Did you think that your first submission was false or deceptive?”

Dr. Saipe:   “No.”

Halsne: “But RTD did?”

Dr. Saipe: “Well they didn’t use the word deception. I think they said you can’t prove that every pet shop sells only puppy mill dogs.”

Using its editorial control, RTD changed the ad to say no to puppy mill pet shops and online sellers – believing that was more accurate.

Saipe’s group was happy to add the words, but what was their alternative?

“We wanted an ad to get our message across about ending puppy mills by not buying dogs from pet stores or from the Internet,” said Dr. Saipe. “We’re new to this and I was just glad they would run it at all.”

Dr. Saipe added that RTD, despite the editorializing, treated them fairly, by allowing the ads to stay on some buses for a longer time period than listed on the contract.

Records show RTD also tried to change another animal rights ad. PETA wanted to buy bus backs saying, “Research shows livestock and poultry emissions cause more greenhouse gases than buses, cars and planes combined.”

RTD said no. Reed says the reason was simple: “They claim the study found certain things and that’s not what the study found.”

And, according to records obtained by FOX31 Problem Solvers, RTD thinks Boulder County Republicans got another ad wrong too.

The “BIG GOVERNMENT DEBT IS STEALING HER FUTURE!” message had a picture of a crying baby touting her share of the national debt at $150,000.

RTD did its own research and found that number was the amount owed by all taxpayers—and that babies don’t pay taxes. The debt number was lowered to $55,206 per citizen before being approved.

When FOX31 Denver shared its findings with Scott Levin, regional director of the local Anti-Defamation League, he was surprised. The ADL is a group that battles hateful content and anti-Semitism.

Levin says RTD had been publically defending its approval of the pro-Palestinian ad based on their inability to interfere with politically protected free speech.

Now, after seeing the other cases we’ve found of RTD making changes, he wonders.

Levin says, “There is no credible evidence that Israel has been involved in any ethnic cleansing or war crimes. If RTD is actually willing to evaluate, in these other campaigns, whether or not something is false, misleading or deceptive, it really ought to be doing it in this situation -- to not do so is a double standard. Our belief is people are entitled to have bad speech. The way you overcome that is just with a lot more good speech, but if you’re going to establish a policy we want to make sure you apply it and apply it fairly.”

The Israeli War Crimes campaign was paid for by the Friends of Sabeel, Coloradans for Justice in Palestine and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign (SeaMAC).

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling March 18 of this year that a metro bus service in King County, Washington could “reject the ad” and “thus not violate the First Amendment.”

SeaMAC responded to an inquiry from FOX31 Denver, saying “Yes, the bus ad that ran in Denver is substantially the same as the ad that was first approved and accepted and then revoked in Seattle.”