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Polarizing ads should not be riding the bus

March 11, 2008, The Oregonian by Fred Hansen, general manager of TriMet

Free speech is one of our most important constitutional rights. It's the foundation of our democracy. And, in particular, the breadth of free speech protection provided by the Oregon Constitution is something by which I'm proud to be governed. But the issue facing TriMet -- and about which The Oregonian has editorialized -- is not about free speech.

Our society is built upon the free exchange of ideas, vigorous debate and healthy disagreement. The issue facing TriMet, however, is whether that debate should occur on the sides of our buses and MAX trains. My answer is no.

TriMet is a public agency. In our public role, we abide by the constitution by providing freedom of speech. But when it comes to the advertisements on our buses and trains, TriMet is also a business. And just like the owner of a billboard or mural space on the side of a building, we set standards for what advertisements we'll accept, something the editorial board agreed with. In this case, we have decided to reject political or issue ads and accept only those ads aimed at selling products or services. The revenue from these advertisements helps us expand our services.

The Oregonian's editorial ran with a depiction of the ad we rejected. It showed salmon swimming toward a wall of electrical plug-ins with a caption that said, "Salmon shouldn't run up your electric bill. They should run up the Klamath River."

From a personal standpoint, I support removing the four Klamath dams in question. But that's not the point.

Consider the implications of having no restrictions on TriMet advertising. Would the reaction have been different if the ad rejected had been:

The picture of a skinhead complete with a swastika tattoo asking to keep America for Americans?

The picture of an aborted fetus accompanied by an anti-abortion message?

The picture of a same-sex couple at a wedding altar saying that it's against God's law?

The list of controversial ads could go on and on.

Most riders -- in fact, most citizens of our region -- react as I do. At first, when we see a posting with which we agree, we nod in approval, maybe even give a big thumbs up. And when we see something with which we disagree, we are offended and ask, "How could that be permitted?" In our case people ask, "How could TriMet support this?"

And then, most of us do what I have done. We recognize that you can't have one without the other and conclude that it's best to have neither.

And that's what TriMet has done. There are many forums for the give and take of political debate that's so important to our democracy. We all support free speech. But let's keep the polarizing advertisements on our bumper stickers, not on our buses and MAX.

Fred Hansen is general manager of TriMet.

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