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Marijuana Reform Facebook Ads Restored After Social Network Ends 'Just Say Now' Ban

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Facebook turned over a new leaf Monday, unblocking advertisements promoting a marijuana legalization campaign involving a set of November ballot initiatives across the country.

The social media giant conceded to Internet freedom advocates over the past week that it had erred in yanking a pro-legalization group's ads from its network because of pot leaf images. Parties involved in the controversy confirmed the Facebook decision to The Huffington Post on Monday.

Just Say Now organizer Brian Sonenstein told The Huffington Post that the leafy ads were no longer listed as disapproved on Facebook.

When the online campaign's ads were submitted for review earlier this year, Facebook outright rejected them, as it did the group's ads two years ago. In 2010, Facebook took down Just Say Now's ads after about a week on the social network.

More than 15,000 supporters signed an online petition calling for Facebook to bring back the latest batch of Just Say Now ads, catching the eye of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California.

The two free speech groups approached Just Say Now and Students for Sensible Drug Policy — which had found itself in a similar situation — about appealing to Facebook. Electronic Frontier Foundation activism director Rainey Reitman and ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye said they held several discussions with Facebook executives from Wednesday to Friday. Lye said the Facebook representatives were "quick to admit" they had either misinterpreted or failed to follow Facebook advertising guidelines.

"Their position was very clear -- and we certainly applaud it -- which is that Facebook is a neutral platform," Lye said. "It does not weigh in on political advocacy, and it was a mistake to reject the ads."

In a statement last week, Facebook spokeswoman Gwendolyn Belomy said the company's advertising policy had not changed.

"We do allow images of marijuana in ads under circumstances, such as a political debate," Belomy said. "However, we do not allow ads for illegal activity, such as the sale of marijuana."

Belomy did not respond to a follow-up question on whether Facebook acknowledged a "mistake" in blocking the marijuana leaf ads.

For some legalization advocates, including Sonenstein, the ads' restoration shows a broader shift in public attitudes toward pot laws.

"Marijuana's knocking on the door at this point," Sonenstein said. "The initiatives and the campaigns are much stronger this year. Support is where it's never been, at least in the last 30 to 40 years. … It's just one of those things where people are starting to say, 'Well, I guess we better get on one side of this issue or the other,' because public perception is changing."

Just Say Now, an online campaign started by progressive blog Firedoglake.com, was launched in 2010 to push for ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana in Arizona, Oregon, California, Colorado and South Dakota. This election cycle, Sonenstein said Just Say Now is supporting major pot law reforms in six states.

When Facebook first pulled the pro-legalization ads in 2010, Firedoglake.com organizer Michael Whitney likened hiding the marijuana leaf to "running a campaign and saying you can't show the candidate's face."

In a blog post on the ACLU's website Monday morning, Lye praised Facebook's reversal as a "victory for free speech on the Internet." She warned that Facebook's ambition to become the "virtual town square" will be stymied if its advertising policies have built-in censorship.

"They did the right thing here," Electronic Frontier Foundation's Reitman told The Huffington Post. "But this is just going to keep coming up again and again both on Facebook and other sites as more of our political discussions and our societal discussions kind of move in to these online spaces."

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