SEPTA loses fight to bar anti-Islam ads from buses

     (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Ads linking Islam to Hitler may soon be seen on city buses around Philadelphia following a federal judge’s ruling that the group behind the ad campaign is protected by free speech.

    Last June, SEPTA rejected the ads from New Hampshire-based American Freedom Defense Initiative by pointing to the transportation authority’s “anti-disparagement standard,” rules attempting to limit inflammatory messages.

    But the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a group headed by conservative blogger Pam Geller, challenged SEPTA’s rejection in court. Geller is best known for her opposition to building an Islamic center near the sites of the World Trade Center attacks.  And she did so with momentum in her stride, as her group has fought and won similar battles from San Francisco to New York.  Geller has said the group put the ads up to counter anti-Israel messages.

    On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg sided with Geller, calling SEPTA’s ad restriction “certainty laudable,” but “such aspirations do not, unfortunately, cure First Amendment violations.”

    In an email, Geller called the decision “another historic AFDI victory.”

    “It’s not about AFDI, or our ads, but the liberties we are guaranteed under the First Amendment,” she said. “This is not our first win against government agencies who arbitrarily silence and censor truths.”

    The ad in question depicts a 1940s photo of a Palestinian leader talking with Adolf Hitler under the text: “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s in the Quran.”

    The Muslim religious leader in the photo, Haj Amin al-Husseini, has been described as being “as big a Nazi villain as Hitler himself,” something that is further proof, opponents of the ads say, that he was out of step with the overwhelming majority of those who practice Islam.

    Ryan Tack-Hooper, an attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations Pennsylvania, said though he thinks the ads are false and hateful, SEPTA can’t argue with the Constitution.

    “SEPTA’s in a tough spot because people want to see them fight this, but at the same time, we don’t want to have SEPTA damaging the First Amendment,” Tack-Hooper said. “This is not about SEPTA giving in. I think they’ve already gone above the call of duty by fighting this in the district court.”

    Tack-Hooper said it’s not unlike allowing Nazi groups to march, or letting the Klu Klux Klan organize a public speech.

    “One of the virtues of free speech is that bad ideas get expressed, and when we counter those bad ideas with knowledge and education, the people who previously might have harbored those ideas have the opportunity to reconsider,” Tack-Hooper said.

    In San Francisco, street artists defaced the AFDI ads with messages such as “calling all bigotry busters,” and “stamp out racism.” The transit agency there also launched an ad campaign alongside the AFDI ads that served almost as a disclaimer, saying the agency does not support discrimination.

    SEPTA’s response to the federal judge’s ruling is still being calculated, according to a spokeswoman. But countering the ads with a San Francisco-style disclaimer message is being discussed as an option.

    This article has been amended.  A previoius version gave an incomplete, and potentially misleading description of American Freedom Defense Initiative.  

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