Boston bumps ‘BASEketball’ ads from buses

Friday, July 31, 1998

The general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority this week decided that ads for the new movie “BASEketball,” which feature two actors holding large balls near their groins, were out of bounds and would not appear on Boston-area buses.

Robert Prince Jr. determined that the ads are “offensive and not overly clever,” said Brian Pedro, a transit authority spokesman.

“He just said, 'This is not going up,'” Pedro said. “In the long run, this is still the same city that was founded by the Puritans.”

The comedy, which opens today, centers on the fictional sport of baseketball, a hybrid of baseball and basketball.

The ad features the film's stars, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, each holding a pair of baseball-like basketballs near their groins. Stone and Parker are better known as the creators of “South Park,” an animated television series that features foul-mouthed third-graders.

Officials at Universal Pictures, which is distributing the film, didn't return calls. Stone and Parker recently told several Boston publications they didn't mind that the city's transit authority banned the ads. The actors dismissed Boston as a cold, humorless place.

Pedro defended Prince's decision, noting that the transit authority's customers are a captive audience who can't avoid the ads if they don't want to look at them. He noted that the transit authority last year pulled an ad for Surf laundry detergent because it featured a naked woman.

“You can't change the channel when it's right in front of you,” he said.

But free-speech advocates say government efforts to curb such advertising run afoul of the First Amendment.

They note that the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the Boston transit authority's policy prohibiting “offensive” ads after the agency rejected abortion-related ads in subways.

In a similar case, Rick Kaplar of the Media Institute notes that New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Agency last year abandoned an effort to bar “patently offensive, improper or in bad taste” advertising in part because of constitutional problems.

Pedro said the “BASEketball” ban doesn't involve any free-speech issues, adding that the film's creators probably love the publicity.

“We're not banning the movie, but if the ads are going to be on the side of our buses, it can't be offensive,” he said. “We don't pretend to be arbitrators of taste, but, on the other hand, we are beholden to our customers to be sensitive to this. We wouldn't want anything to be overly racial, either.”