The ACLU of Washington filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against King County over the decision to cancel a bus ad that alleges Israeli war crimes.

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The ACLU of Washington, representing a group that purchased a bus ad alleging Israeli war crimes, sued King County Wednesday over its decision to cancel the ad before it appeared.

The lawsuit in U.S. District Court claims that King County violated the group’s First Amendment rights and asks the court to order the county to run the ad for four weeks on the sides of 12 buses, as Metro and its ad agency originally agreed to do.

Metro’s initial acceptance of the ad from the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign prompted an onslaught of complaints by e-mail and phone, and three other organizations said they planned to run counter-ads portraying Israel as a victim of Palestinian terrorism.

Metro and County Executive Dow Constantine initially said the ad was consistent with county ad standards and that it would violate the sponsor’s free-speech rights to cancel it.

A few days later, Metro canceled the ad and said it wouldn’t accept any new noncommercial advertising until the county adopted a new ad policy. Constantine said in a statement at the time that he had been told by federal and local law-enforcement agencies the bus system “could be vulnerable to disruption” because of the ad and he approved the decision to cancel it.

The ad, which never appeared on Metro buses, showed children looking at a bomb-damaged building in Gaza and these words: “Israeli war crimes — Your tax dollars at work.”

“The escalation of this issue from one of 12 local bus placards to a widespread and often vitriolic international debate introduces new and significant security concerns that compel reassessment,” Constantine’s statement said.

But ACLU Executive Director Kathleen Taylor said at a news conference Wednesday that if there were threats to disrupt buses, the appropriate response would have been to “address the criminal conduct, not the speech.”

“The purpose of the First Amendment,” Taylor said, “is to protect speech that is difficult to hear and that makes people uncomfortable. Mild speech doesn’t need our protection. …

“Part of being a free society and a democratic society is we as citizens engage in the hurly-burly of free speech. We can’t say, ‘Oh, it’s inconvenient to have free speech.’ “

Ed Mast, spokesman for the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, said the group was formed early last year to advertise its concerns about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a broader audience. The group chose Metro buses, he said, because they accepted controversial advertising and their price “brought it within reach of a nonprofit, grass-roots, all-volunteer organization.”

Some previous political Metro bus ads have carried these messages: “War kills the innocent — Join together to end the Iraq War” (2005), “Save Gaza!” and “End siege of Gaza!” (2009), and “Yes, Virginia … there is no God” (2009).

Frank Abe, spokesman for Constantine, said of the ACLU lawsuit: “We welcome the opportunity for the court to clarify the standards for Metro’s ability to regulate the ads on its buses.”

Abe declined to say whether Metro received specific threats of disruption, commenting: “Let’s let that sort out in the court.”

Metropolitan King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who urged Metro last month to cancel the ad, issued a statement Wednesday saying the county must serve bus passengers “without inadvertently making them become the targets of deranged individuals incited by messages.”

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or