BANNING POLITICAL SPEECH: It has come to this. New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority has voted to ban all political, religious and opinion ads. The reason? An April 21 decision by federal district judge John Koeltl to enjoin the Transit Authority from refusing to run an ad sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) that said, “Hamas MTV: Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah.” Underneath this caption, the ad said, “That’s His Jihad, What’s Yours?” Here’s a copy of the ad:
The ad was designed to be anti-Hamas and pro-Israel. A similar, crowd-sourced ad campaign by AFDI was characterized as “Islamorealism.”
The Transit Authority cited “security” concerns in its decision to reject the ad, but Judge Koeltl responded:
While the Court is sensitive to the MTA’s security concerns, the defendants have not presented any objective evidence that the Killing Jews advertisement would be likely to incite imminent violence. Indeed, as the defendants knew when considering whether to run the ad, substantially the same advertisement ran in San Francisco and Chicago in 2013 without incident. The advertisement qualifies as protected speech, and the defendants have restricted it based on its content without a compelling interest or a response narrowly tailored to achieving any such interest. Accordingly, the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction is granted.
In an oped for Breitbart, Pamela Geller, co-founder of AFDI writes:
This is a classic case of the powerful trumping the rights of the common man so as to protect their little club. The political and media elites only allow the public discourse to fall within a certain political spectrum. My ads drove them crazy because they fell outside of that spectrum; I was vaulting over their controls and bringing truths to the public that they didn’t want known. They had to move to shut me down.
I’m siding with Geller on this one. The NYC Transit Authority is banning all political/religious/opinion ads in an attempt to prevent its rejection of AFDI’s ads from being characterized as a “content-based” restriction on free speech, which is presumptively unconstitutional. And while it’s true that the Transit Authority has now banned all such ads– not just AFDI’s–it’s a sad day when government opts to shut down all speech merely because some of it may be offensive. The ad was not the functional equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater; it was controversial because it defies the liberal/progressive worldview of Hamas and the Palestinian effort as virtuous, and Israel as an apartheid state.
Free speech isn’t worth much if government can ban it whenever it offends. As the Supreme Court said in its 1971 decision, Cohen v. California:
The constitutional right of free expression is powerful medicine in a society as diverse and populous as ours. It is designed and intended to remove governmental restraints from the arena of public discussion, putting the decision as to what views shall be voiced largely into the hands of each of us, in the hope that use of such freedom will ultimately produce a more capable citizenry and more perfect polity and in the belief that no other approach would comport with the premise of individual dignity and choice upon which our political system rests. To many, the immediate consequence of this freedom may often appear to be only verbal tumult, discord, and even offensive utterance. These are, however, within established limits, in truth necessary side effects of the broader enduring values which the process of open debate permits us to achieve. That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is, in this sense not a sign of weakness but of strength.
NY Transit Authority’s action shows that, from the leftist perspective, Americans can’t handle potentially “offensive” speech by averting their eyes, but need to be paternalistically protected from being exposed to it at all. We aren’t producing “a more capable citizenry” anymore; quite the contrary. NY Transit Authority’s decision is a sign of societal decay and weakness, not strength.