The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New York transit system bans all political advertising

An ad from the pro-Israel American Freedom Defense Initiative is seen on an articulated Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) bus featuring a 1941 photograph of Hitler and supporter Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian Arab nationalist, Wednesday, April 1, 2015, in Philadelphia. A federal judge last month ordered SEPTA to accept the ads. The agency said last week it wouldn’t appeal. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This post has been updated.

The nation’s largest mass transit system on Wednesday banned all political advertising from its system, a move designed to avoid a federal judge’s order to display an anti-Muslim ad officials fear could prompt violence against Jews.

The vote by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board was 9-2 and comes after a federal judge last week ordered the system to run an ad that contained the quote: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah.” The pro-Israel group American Freedom Defense Initiative sued the transit authority after it declined to run the ad because of fears it could lead to violence.

In enacting the ban, New York follows in the footsteps of systems in Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia.

A spokesman for the transit authority said the ban would take effect immediately. Under the revised policy the system will only display “paid commercial advertising, certain public service announcements that will help build goodwill for the MTA among its riders and the pu

One board member blasted the decision saying it implied that New Yorkers were not as smart as people in other cities.

“(It says) that we can’t determine the difference between hate speech and political speech and hemorrhoid-related ads,” said Andrew Albert said. “New Yorkers are pretty sharp in that regard.”

Officials played down the financial impact saying that political advertising accounts for less than $1 million of its annual advertising revenue of $138 million.

AFDI’s executive director Pamela Geller appeared at the meeting with placards showing the ads.

“You call my ads hateful?” she said. “These are actual quotes. Why aren’t we talking about the ideology behind these quotes?”

AFDI sued the agency last year after officials said MTA would run only three of the four ads the group proposed. U.S. District Judge John Koeltl said he understood the transit authority’s concerns but wrote in his ruling that similar ads had run in San Francisco and Chicago in 2013 without incident.

“Under the First Amendment, the fear of such spontaneous attacks, without more, cannot override individuals’ rights to freedom of expression,” said the ruling. But the judge did give MTA 30 days to appeal his decision. An MTA spokesman said the agency is considering its options.

Jerome Page, MTA’s general counsel said the same safety concerns that prompted the agency to decline to run the ad, prompted its decision to change its MTA policy on advertising.

“We drew the line when we thought our customers, our employees and the public were in danger,” he said. “The judge gave short shrift to those concerns.”

Earlier, board Charles Moerdler said he was supportive of the decision.

“Hateful speech, with its odious appeal to intolerance, is the incendiary that ignites violence and ultimately destroys free and democratic institutions,” Moerdler said.

But board member Allen Cappelli argued that just because a couple of “hateful people” have tried to abuse the privilege of free speech doesn’t justify taking that right away from millions of others.

“I am really sad to see management attempting to go down this road,” Cappelli said. “I believe very strongly that the antidote to hateful speech is more free speech.”

AFDI is known for publicly criticizing Islam.

It also has battled Metro over ads it wanted to run in the Washington transit system.

In 2012, a federal judge ruled that Metro would have to display posters purchased by AFDI that said “In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

Officials sought  to delay the displays in the wake of  violent protests in the Middle East sparked by an Internet video that disparaged the prophet Muhammad. In court papers, Metro’s lawyers argued that displaying the posters would endanger the public — a position similar to the one taken by the MTA in its case.

Morgan Dye, a spokesperson for Metro said the system has not plans to change its guidelines in light of New York’s decision.

“As you know, the courts have ruled that Metro advertising space is a public forum,” Dye wrote in an email. “We require that issue-oriented ads carry a disclaimer stating that the views expressed do not represent those of WMATA.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.