Could a boycott of public transport carrying AFDI/SIOA ads be effective?


Could a boycott of public transport carrying AFDI/SIOA ads be effective?

by Sheila Musaji

On TAM, we have published a number of articles on the current controversy over a series of ads being published in public spaces across the country by the hate groups AFDI/SIOA run by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer.  These articles include many sources and references regarding discussion of different aspects of this controversy:

- Pamela Geller: A Tale of Two Bus Ads
- A Tale of Three Bigoted Ads
- AFDI/SIOA Bus Ads Inspired by Ayn Rand’s Racist Views of Arabs and Muslims?
- Pamela Geller & Robert Spencer announce new “Islamorealism” anti-Islam ad
- 17,000+ “Islamic terrorist” attacks exist only in fevered Islamophobic brains
- The origins of the term “Islamophobia”
- Bus Ads: Of Savages and Idiots
- 17,000+ “Islamic terrorist” attacks exist only in fevered Islamophobic brains
- Freedom of speech does not include freedom from condemnation of that speech
- Pamela Geller Does Not Understand Freedom of Speech
- American Muslims and Arabs respond to the ads.
- All extremists are “savages” and “civilized men” need to counter the hate
- How Muslims understand the term “jihad”
- Is vandalism an appropriate free speech response to hate speech? .
- The legal battle over AFDI/SIOA Anti-Muslim Ads
- American Jews Are Speaking Out Against Anti-Muslim Ads
- AFDI/SIOA Roll Out 9 More Anti-Muslim Ads 
- Americans support tolerance and reject hate about the ads being placed by Rabbis for Human Rights, Sojourners, and United Methodist Women.

Pamela Geller, in her most recent attack on anyone who disagrees with her displays her inability to comprehend either the basic concept of freedom of speech, or the fact that freedom of speech doesn’t include freedom of condemnation for that speech.

She objects to an article by Michael Shank Boycotting Muslim ‘Savages’ Ad on DC Metro in Protest of Hate Speech  who objects to the AFDI/SIOA ads now coming to Washington, D.C. .  Mr Shank says that he will not ride the “WMATA from the beginning of its savage and hateful ad run until the end of it. I get that it’s a court order but I do not want to support this kind of hate. I understand that our rights to free speech will, and should always be, protected in the public square, which is why, much to my chagrin, we witnessed this summer on the national mall, a march by the white supremacist Aryan Nation. But in forcing WMATA to take an ad buy, we have crossed the line of liberty. We are now no longer defending free speech we are defending hate speech. And that is hardly an America of which to be proud.”

He is making a statement that in his opinion these ads are hate speech.  He does not advocate limiting free speech, but he does advocate condemning hate speech.  And, says that he is going to exercise his free speech rights by condemning the content of the ads, and by boycotting the WMATA during the ads run. 

Geller accuses him of “feigning outrage”, being a “dhimmi tool”, and having “Islamic supremacist masters”, of “shilling for jihad, abridgement of our freedoms and the sanction of the blasphemy laws under the sharia”, etc.  And, then at the close of her attack on Shank and defense of the AFDI/SIOA ads, she says:

This is so ridiculous it made me laugh. In fact, authorities going all the way up to Obama’s DoJ bend over backwards to accommodate Muslims. Insults to no other group have ever occasioned serious discussion in mainstream American publications about restrictions on the freedom of speech. And if those restrictions come, Michael Shank will welcome them—until his Islamic supremacist masters reveal their true face, that is. But by then it will be too late for Shank. He will have served his purpose.

Insults to no other group have ever occasioned serious discussion in mainstream American publications about restrictions on the freedom of speech?  Where has Geller been?  Here are just a few such serious discussions about the limits of free speech that were turned up in just a brief google search:

- 1st Circuit sides with pro-marijuana group in transit-ad dispute
- 9th Circuit considers free speech in global context (Yahoo and Nazi memorabilia)
- Anti-Semitism claims against UC-Berkeley dismissed
Arkansas transit authority told to run atheists’ bus ads Ark. transit authority told to run atheists’ bus ads
- Atheist bus ads spark free-speech debate in Iowa
- Even vile funeral protests are free speech (Westboro Baptist Church)
Florida transit agency agrees to allow disputed ads for anti-homosexuality conference
- Free Speech? ACLU Will Defend the KKK in Battle Over Highway Cleanup Program
- Free speech and Chick-fil-A
Free Speech on the Subway: Should a public transit agency allow ads that criticize the president?
- Harvard, “Anti-Semitism” & Freedom of Speech , Mohamed Khodr
- Holocaust Denial and Freedom of Speech in the Internet Era
- Is racism covered in freedom of speech?
King County, Washington doesn’t have to place advertisements critical of the Israeli government on Metro buses
- Michigan official’s hate speech (anti-day) protected by 1st amendment
- Mich. transit agency sued after refusing “boycott Israel” ad
- Neo-Nazi group plans rally on Yorktown battlefield cites 1st amendment 
- Public debate best way to handle controversial ‘B.C.’ comic (anti-Semitism and censorship)
- Supreme court turns away challenge to Confederate flag ban
- Supreme Court: ‘hurtful speech’ of Westboro Baptist Church is protected
- Univ. of Calif. anti-Semitism report prompts free-speech debate

These ads are clearly hate speech, and they are also clearly protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.  Countering the message of the ads is important.  How to counter that message is also important.

The article on the Muslim and Arab response to date listed existing efforts at reasonable, and appropriate efforts to use our free speech to counter the hateful message of these ads. There is a subway ad twitter campaign, a campaign to ask public officials to denounce the ads, and a campaign to have individuals peacefully stand next to the ads with signs objecting to the message and/or quietly handing out fliers.  There have been many previous creative responses, for example Muslims carrying signs.  There have also been numerous articles written condemning the ads and pointing out why they are hateful.  All of these are reasonable, well thought through, and have a possibility of changing hearts and minds.

It is perfectly reasonable to both disagree with, or even condemn the speech of another, and at the same time defend their right to engage in such speech. It is perfectly reasonable to ask an individual to consider the possible implications of hate speech. It is perfectly reasonable to defend freedom of speech, and yet make a judgement that some speech is not socially acceptable, even though it is legal. It is perfectly reasonable to debate possible limitations on free speech. It is also perfectly reasonable to carry out peaceful protests against hateful speech. It is perfectly reasonable to run counter ads, or engage in twitter campaigns, or any number of other legal activities that have been carried out so far.

It is not perfectly reasonable to carry out intimidation, illegal activities, or violence in response to hate speech.  Such acts are immoral, and illegal and also deserve condemnation.

Taking the possibilities into consideration, it seems to me that Michael Shank has an excellent idea. If enough individuals in areas where these ads are running refused to ride on the public transportation running the ads, would that perhaps cause the transit authorities to consider banning all non-commercial advertising?  Would such a boycott even be feasible for most people?  Another important question, as enough people would need to use other forms of transportation to cost the transit authority more than the non-commercial ads are bringing in.  Geller said that running the ads for 30 days in 10 subway stations cost $6,000.  That means that if even 1,000 people in NYC did not ride the subway for 30 days as a protest to the ads, that that would cost the MTA at least $90,000.  And, if those people wrote to their local public transportation service telling them why they were not using that service, that would have an impact on reconsidering whether non-commercial advertising belongs on public transportation.

It seems as if in our current societal climate, where we are so polarized on so many issues, and the level of hateful rhetoric has increased, that such a ban might be the most reasonable solution.  At this point in time, the only counter ads that have been run have been ads calling for love instead of hate, and for tolerance.  That doesn’t mean that there is not some group, somewhere who won’t “retaliate” or try to “prove a point” by submitting an anti-Semitic, or racist, or anti-immigrant, or anti-Gay, or anti-Catholic, or xenophobic ad insulting some other group, and using the fact that these AFDI/SIOA ads were run as the basis of their right to do so as freedom of speech. 

UPDATE 10/9/2012

Ken Paulson, President of the First Amendment Center has written an article Cities may not screen transit ads by viewpoint discussing the most recent legal issues being raised.  I have highlighted the passage that directly addresses the issues raised in this article:

A second federal judge has ruled that a metropolitan transit system must accept controversial ads that call for support for Israel and the defeat of “jihad.”

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer on Oct. 5 ruled that the Metro system in Washington, D.C., must accept ads that say, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Collyer’s decision follows a similar ruling by U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer that the New York City subway system must run the ads because their content is protected by the First Amendment.

The two decisions were not surprising, but they do reinforce a core principle of the First Amendment: Governments may not discriminate against viewpoints with which they disagree or which make them uncomfortable. City transportation systems are government entities, and as such, cannot limit freedom of speech. Governments may, however, set guidelines for the content of ads as long as they don’t discriminate against opinions. That means a metro system could turn down all nonprofit or political ads, but it must be consistent in rejecting all ads in those categories. It can’t pick and choose.

Once government gets into the business of posting political material, it creates a public forum and all who are willing to pay the cost of display have a right to share their views.

Some who have attempted to limit the controversial ads argue that they’re not protected by the First Amendment because they fall under the “fighting words” exemption – particularly given the global unrest caused by the “Innocence of Muslims” video on YouTube. Under the “fighting words” doctrine, government can limit speech that is likely to incite immediate violence or retaliation. That’s a very narrow exception and not likely to apply to a printed ad on the wall of a subway station.

Indeed, unlawful reaction to the ads in New York and San Francisco has been limited to some defacing, a fairly common occurrence in major cities regardless of the message.

Abdul Yasar, a New York subway passenger and observant Muslim, told the Associated Press that the ads shouldn’t be posted. But then he noted: “If this is a free country, they have the right to do this … and then Muslims have the right to put up their own ad.”

That would mean more speech, not suppressed speech, and no damage to the Constitution.