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MTA agrees to allow subway herd ads

An advertisement comparing the morning subway commute to the herding of livestock can be posted in subway cars after all, a transportation agency said Friday after it was sued on First Amendment grounds.

"This is a victory for both free speech and better subways," said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority agreed to allow the ad to run.

The group had joined another mass transit advocate, the Regional Plan Association, in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

In a statement Friday, the MTA said, "After nearly two weeks of extensive discussion and review, the MTA has withdrawn its objections to posting on the MTA transit system an advertisement from the straphangers campaign."

Lisa Schwartz, an MTA spokeswoman, said there would be no further comment. She declined to say whether the MTA now liked the poster.

"Let's not go down that road," she said.

The lawsuit was filed after the MTA refused to approve an advertising campaign that featured a poster of a crowded subway car and the headline: "With livestock it's called animal cruelty. With people it's called a morning commute."

Beneath the headline is copy suggesting that subway overcrowding can be reduced and wait times shortened by buying more subway cars and running trains more often. It also called for a full-length Second Avenue train line and improved signaling.

The commute ad was one of two offered by the non-profit groups to persuade commuters to join a mass-transit advocacy coalition urging political leaders to fund MTA improvements including a new subway line.

The campaign is meant to coincide with consideration by the New York Legislature of a five-year, $16.5 billion capital plan that the groups have criticized as inadequate.

A second ad shows a state-of-the-art subway station and train with the headline: "It's modern. It's reliable. Unfortunately, it's not in New York."

Other copy with the ad says, "New York may be the world's greatest city. But our mass transit system isn't keeping up with the technology used in cities like Washington, San Francisco, and Paris. We deserve better."

According to court papers, the MTA initially rejected both advertisements Feb. 29, but later decided to allow the second ad.

In a rejection letter regarding the crowded subway ad, the MTA told the groups that use of the headline "is directly adverse to the commercial interests of the MTA, in that it is highly critical of the MTA's performance and its current mass transit services."

"This advertisement would discourage the use of the MTA's mass transit services as well as negatively impact the morale of MTA workers," it added.

The MTA changed its position after the New York Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of the mass transit advocates.

"This was censorship pure and simple," NYCLU Executive Director Norman Siegel said after the MTA agreed to let the ad run.


LARRY NEUMEISTER, The Associated Press

Copyright © March 19, 2000 Bergen Record Corp.. All rights reserved.