Less than a day after boasting about their commitment to free speech, Lamar Advertising Company chose to censor a billboard in Chicago by Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign (SeaMAC). The message on the billboard was BOYCOTT ISRAEL UNTIL PALESTINIANS HAVE EQUAL RIGHTS.
On Thursday afternoon Feb. 18, 2016, in response to complaints about SeaMAC’s billboard, Lamar posted a statement on their Facebook page saying:
Lamar has been in the billboard business for over 100 years and we have developed a strong commitment to supporting the First Amendment right of advertisers who wish to use our medium to promote legal products and services or to convey noncommercial messages such as the one in Chicago. We do not accept or reject copy based upon agreement or disagreement with the views presented. We think SEAMAC has a right to present their views and would also support the right of those who disagree with SEAMAC.
On Friday afternoon Feb. 19, 2016, Lamar posted that
[W]e have tried to contact SeaMAC to discuss these issues but have not received a reply to our telephone and email messages. Therefore we have decided to remove the SeaMAC copy as soon as possible.
In fact it was Lamar that was not replying to SeaMAC. “We spent all day Friday trying to reach Lamar both by phone and email. Lamar did not respond, even to tell us they were taking down the billboard,” said Edward Mast, volunteer board member of SeaMAC. “We’re very disturbed at what appears to be a false and flimsy excuse for Lamar to violate its own standards of free speech. As often happens on this issue, Lamar is listening to some voices while ignoring the damage their censorship will do to others in their community.”
By Saturday Feb. 20, 2016, the billboard had been taken down. As of Sunday night, Lamar still has not contacted SeaMAC.
“A boycott is a nonviolent response to a system of injustice. All the arguments against the boycott of Israel were also made against the boycott of apartheid in South Africa,” said Carla Curio, another volunteer board member of SeaMAC. “Our billboard calls for equal rights for Palestinians, and many of the complaints we’ve seen have been openly racist in denying that Palestinians or Arabs are deserving of equal human treatment.”
In 2015, SeaMAC ran the same message on public buses in Washington DC, San Francisco, Denver, and Portland OR. The billboard and bus ads are funded by SeaMAC and by local activists and groups in each city. In Chicago, SeaMAC worked with Palestinian Freedom Writers, a group that helps direct humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
The use of the term “apartheid” about Israel refers not only to the West Bank, where Israeli Jewish settlers and Palestinian residents are both under the jurisdiction of the Israeli government and live under two separate and unequal sets of laws, but also to the stark inequalities inside Israel itself, where 1.5 million Palestinians citizens are subject to over 50 laws that discriminate against them and in favor of Israeli Jews. The call to boycott Israel is modeled on the boycott campaign against apartheid in old South Africa.