On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John Koeltl ruled that the MTA must post the American Freedom Defense Initiative’s new ads, despite worries that the controversial posters could lead to violence.
Koeltl argues that the agency “overestimate[s] the potential impact of these fleeting advertisements.” “These ads — offensive as they may be — are still entitled to First Amendment protection.”
The ads, which have already appeared in Chicago and San Francisco, feature a man in a headscarf whose head floats near the words, “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah. That’s His Jihad. What’s yours?”
This case does not mark the first time the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which the South Poverty Law Center labels as an “active anti-Muslim group,” has won a battle against the MTA.
In 2012, the MTA declined to run AFDI ads that read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel, defeat Jihad.” AFDI and its executive director, Pamela Geller, sued. The court ruled in the group’s favor, citing the First Amendment — and the MTA’s loophole-filled regulations that the court argued would also allow ads stating ”fat people are slobs” or “southerners are bigots.” The ads went up in ten subway stations, with a very large disclaimer noting that they were not endorsed by the MTA. Many of the ads were quickly defaced with stickers that read “RACIST” or “Hate Speech.”
Geller told WCBS 880 at the time, “It is freedom of speech, and I will not abridge my freedom of speech so as not to offend savages. I cannot imagine why anyone would be outraged by the truth, but this is the era that we’re living in. Truth is the new hate speech, and just telling the truth is a radical act.”
Before her organization’s controversial ads started dotting public transportation across the country, Geller, who has poked at her public persona by calling herself a “racist-Islamophobic-anti-Muslim-bigot,” was perhaps best known for her campaign against the failed Park51 project, what she called “the ground zero mega-mosque.”
The judge who ruled in AFDI’s favor this week wrote that, “it strains credulity to believe that New Yorkers would be incited to violence by ads that did not incite residents of Chicago and San Francisco.” The ads did, however, cause a similar amount of controversy in other cities, although cities had learned from New York that refusing to put the ads up at all wasn’t the best way to protest them.
When the “Support Israel, defeat Jihad” ads appeared in San Francisco, Tom Nolan, the president of the Transportation Board, decided to leave them up, but donate any revenue earned from the ads to the Human Rights Commission. “What could happen here if we take them all down [is] we could be taken to court and [there] would be a big cost associated with that and we could be forced,” Nolan said, “I guess like New York, to put them back up anyway.” Chigago’s CTA had the same reaction to the ads. “[Our] guidelines, again which are in place in other transit agencies throughout the country,” a spokesperson said, “have not held up to the legal challenges that the AFDI has put forth in other cities throughout the country.”
The MTA has had success blocking other ads it hasn’t liked, as long as politics aren’t involved. A moving company’s ad that featured a cri de couer for safe sex and didn’t really have anything to do with moving didn’t make it onto subway cars.
And what of Koeltl’s assertion that the MTA was overestimating “the potential impact of these fleeting advertisements”? Looking at how many people are swayed by similarly provocative ads, political or prurient, he’s probably right. Most people who saw the hypothetical moving company ad weren’t going to call its number after leaving the subway platform, most people didn’t change their vote during the 2012 presidential election after seeing an attack ad, and most people haven’t agreed with Pamela Gellar after seeing her ads these past few years.
And, as Vanderbilt University political scientist John Geer told Rolling Stone in 2012, controversial ads “now are not just aimed at voters. They are aimed at journalists. … Probably no more than 1 percent of the American public saw the Swift Boat ad,” but plenty of voters “knew the term ‘Swift Boat.’ That’s coming from the news media.”