Controversy Escalates Over Anti-Islam Metro Ads

Even after two court cases and a public outcry, these inflammatory ads in New York and Washington D.C. public transit systems aren't going anywhere

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

People walk by a controversial ad, which has already been defaced, that condemns radical Islam in a New York City subway station, Sept. 27, 2012.

Hop on a bus in New York or a train in Washington D.C. these days, and you might see an ad that reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel, Defeat jihad.”  The message that Israel’s critics—and in some people’s reading, all Muslims—are “savages” is not one that the N.Y. Metro Transit Authority (MTA) or the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) want to display. But they don’t have a choice.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a conservative anti-Islam group run by activist Pamela Geller, first tried to buy space for the ads on New York City buses last fall.  The MTA turned them down, citing its rule against posting “images or information that demean…on account of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry.” Geller promptly sued the MTA for violating the group’s right to free speech, arguing that by not putting up the ad, the MTA was taking sides on a political issue.

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The court sided with Geller.  N.Y. District Court Judge Paul Engelmayer denied an appeal on Aug. 29, and the MTA has since revised its rule to only ban ads that “would imminently incite or provoke violence,” a standard that follows the one set by the landmark First Amendment case Brandenburg v. Ohio.  Robert Muise, Geller’s lawyer, says the new rule is “unconstitutional,” but the MTA hasn’t rejected the AFDI ads under the new guidelines. It will instead attach a disclaimer: “the display of this advertisement does not imply MTA’s endorsement of any views expressed.”  The ads went up September 24.

But the controversy didn’t end there. On September 6, Geller signed a $5,600 contract to run the same ads from Sept. 24 to Oct. 21 at four Washington D.C. area Metro stops. Citing “situations around the world” and the “security and safety” of its passengers, WMATA informed Geller on September 18 that WMATA would not display the ads, and reevaluate the contract November 1.  Geller sued WMATA, again alleging First Amendment violations.

WMATA said it was advised by the Department of Homeland Security to review the ads because they risked inciting violence in the wake of Middle East protestsset off by an anti-Islamic video produced in California.

“We’re not trying to close the forum to end debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict,” WMATA lawyer Philip Straub said in a federal court hearing. “We’re merely saying these words used in this ad—‘savage,’ ‘war,’ ‘defeat’—echo so closely to the video that’s resulted in protests and deaths overseas, and, as we were notified by Department of Homeland Security, the threat of terrorism on U.S. soil, thatthese words could not be displayed in our system until passions have cooled somewhat.”

Judge Rosemary Collyer didn’t accept this argument and ordered WMATA to post the ads no later than October 8, even though she called their message “hate speech.”

The debate has since spilled out of the courtroom.  A D.C. commuter covered the ads in Post-It notes and a member of Congress has called for a boycott of Metro trains. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an “organization that challenges stereotypes of Islam and Muslims,” has purchased 16-foot banners in the same four Metro stations Geller targeted.  The CAIR ads, set to go up this week, show a girl in a hijab with a quote from the Koran: “Show forgiveness, speak for justice and avoid the ignorant.”

In response, Geller on Monday submitted a new ad to WMATA that features a picture of the World Trade Center towers burning next to two Koran quotes: “Slay the unbelievers wherever ye find them,” and “Those who disbelieve our revelations- we shall expose them to the fire. As often as their skins are consumed, we shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment.”

Despite the escalation, Dan Stessel, a spokesman for WMATA, says that the new ads will “probably” go up, “considering court filings on the matter finding that Metro ad space is a public forum.” It seems Geller’s inflammatory ads, and the controversy they’ve stirred, are here to stay.

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