September 24, 2012

NOTHING IN THE ad that the American Freedom Defense Initiative wants to place on local buses and trains in the Washington area violates Metro’s scant guidelines on advertising, which ban false or misleading ads and not much else. The group’s ad reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

That message may be seen as inflammatory, obnoxious or hateful but, as a federal judge noted in July in ordering New York’s subway system to accept the ad, it is protected speech under the First Amendment.

So it is unlikely that Metro’s decision to “defer” placing the ad on buses and trains will survive a lawsuit brought by the sponsoring group. Nor does Metro’s stated rationale — a spokesman said that Metro wanted to wait “out of concern for public safety, given current world events” — seem likely to hold much water in a constitutional debate.

Like other incendiary advertising, and like the vile YouTube video that has sparked protests in the Muslim world, the ad degrades public debate and civic life. It could be read as labeling all of Israel’s adversaries as “savages,” vilifying them under the label of “jihad.” Even if you equate the word “jihad” with holy war or terrorism, which many Muslims do not, it is a fact that Israel’s detractors include plenty of people who are every bit as “civilized” as Israelis.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative is considered a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Its founder, Pamela Geller, a conservative blogger and provocateur, has been the driving force behind other like campaigns, including one two years ago to halt the building of a mosque in Lower Manhattan near the Sept. 11 memorial. More recently, her group placed ads in New York railroad stations reading, “It’s not Islamophobia. It’s Islamorealism.”

When buses in San Francisco ran the “jihad” advertisement for three weeks this summer, transit officials ran disclaimers alongside. Metro officials may want to make their view known, just as U.S. officials rightly have condemned the YouTube video. But the bottom line is that censorship is even more distasteful than the ad. And it’s plainly unjustified, even on a temporary basis, to reject it based on Metro’s interpretation of geopolitical events.