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MTA bans critical ads from city subway cars

The subways may often be so jammed that many commuters feel like cattle on their way to market, but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has forbidden an advertisement saying just that for fear it might hurt business.

The transit watchdog agency, Straphangers Campaign, said a federal lawsuit would be filed this week claiming that banning its ad constitutes a violation of the First Amendment.

The ad in question shows riders packed together in a subway car beneath a headline saying "With Livestock it's Called Animal Cruelty. With People It's Called a Morning Commute."

Christopher Boylan, a spokesman for the MTA, said the ad that the Straphangers wanted to display in subway cars was "not in our commercial interests."

Boylan said the ad might discourage people from using the transit system.

The idea of the ad is to show the need for a full-length Second Avenue subway line because of what some critics call intolerable crowding on the Lexington Avenue subway. The MTA's five-year, $16.5 billion plan calls for a shortened Second Avenue line, running only to 63rd Street.

The Straphangers Campaign, the Regional Plan Association and other supporting groups also want the MTA to buy more subway cars and buses and make a variety of improvement in the transit system.

Gene Russianoff, an attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, said rejection of the ad amounted to censorship.

"Does the MTA believe that if the ads go up, the subway riders will suddenly see that subways are crowded, commuters will quit riding and the MTA will lose millions over this realization?" he asked.

Chris Dunn, a lawyer for the New York State branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he would file a suit this week in federal court in Manhattan charging violation of the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech and expression.

The MTA's rejection of the ad was based on the transit agency's own rule that permits barring of ads that are "sexually suggestive," "patently offensive, improper or in bad taste" or "directly adverse to the commercial or administrative interests of the MTA."

Boylan said that Russianoff had refused the MTA's request to tone down the ad by removing the reference to "animal cruelty" but that Russianoff had refused.

"Free speech shouldn't end when you walk into a subway station or board a train," Russianoff said.

It was not the first time the MTA has banned an ad.

In one notable example in 1997, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took exception to an ad, saying that New York magazine was "possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn't taken credit for."

The MTA banned it, but a federal court ruled the MTA had to accept the ad.

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