New Yorkers are used to aggressive advertising. Banners for breast implants. Billboards for condoms. But a federal judge’s ruling has opened the door for far more controversial posters on buses and subways across the city.
“Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah,” reads one such ad next to the image of a young man in a checkered headscarf. “That’s His Jihad. What’s yours?”
The poster is at the center of heated legal debate over public safety and free speech. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John Koeltl ruled that New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) cannot stop the controversial ad from running on scores of subway cars and buses.
The MTA has argued that the ad could incite violence against Jews, but Koeltl rejected that idea.
MTA officials “underestimate the tolerant quality of New Yorkers and overestimate the potential impact of these fleeting advertisements,” he ruled. “Moreover, there is no evidence that seeing one of these advertisements on the back of a bus would be sufficient to trigger a violent reaction. Therefore, these ads — offensive as they may be — are still entitled to First Amendment protection.”
Making the case all the stranger is that the posters are not the work of an Islamist group, but rather a pro-Israel organization.
“This is a triumph for liberty and free speech,” tweeted Pamela Geller, the president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), the group that purchased the ads and sued the MTA to run them. “#freedom #victory #shariafail.”
— Pamela Geller (@PamelaGeller) April 21, 2015
AFDI is not your traditional free speech organization, however. The “about” section on its Web site starts out pretty straightforward, then takes a very hard turn.
“Our objective is to go on the offensive when legal, academic, legislative, cultural, sociological, and political actions are taken to dismantle our basic freedoms and values,” it says. “AFDI acts against the treason being committed by national, state, and local government officials, the mainstream media, and others in their capitulation to the global jihad and Islamic supremacism, the ever-encroaching and unconstitutional power of the federal government, and the rapidly moving attempts to impose socialism and Marxism upon the American people.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center considers AFDI an “anti-Muslim” hate group. This year, AFDI is organizing an inaugural Muhammad portrait contest, despite objections from Muslims who consider images of the prophet blasphemous.
Whatever you make of the group, AFDI has been remarkably successful in bringing its message to America. AFDI has filed at least nine lawsuits across the country, often against cities or their contractors that refuse to display their messages.
Those messages include a poster depicting Adolf Hitler meeting with “the leader of the Muslim world” and demanding that the United States cut off all aid to Islamic countries. “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man,” reads another AFDI poster. “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
These posters have put AFDI on a crash course with both the MTA and Muslim advocacy groups. In 2011, the MTA refused to run the “savage” ad because it was demeaning to Muslims and Palestinians. AFDI sued, and a federal judge later ruled that MTA’s non-demeaning standard violated the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. The “savage” ads soon went up all over New York City.
AFDI’s ads have also drawn objections from Muslims. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil liberties group that promotes the rights of Muslims and better relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, launched its own public relations campaign to combat AFDI. In 2012 and 2013, CAIR ran posters in several U.S. cities promoting peaceful versions of Islam. “‘#MyJihad is to build friendships across the aisle.’ What’s yours?” But the ads never ran in New York due to a disagreement between CAIR and MTA.
With its echoing “What’s yours?,” AFDI’s latest and most controversial “Killing Jews” advertisement parodies CAIR’s campaign. Last summer, AFDI purchased space on 100 buses and subway cars for four of its ads. The MTA approved three of the ads but blocked the “Killing Jews” poster.
The poster attributes the “Killing Jews” quote to “Hamas MTV,” apparently a reference to the Palestinian group’s odd blend of violence and music videos. The ad also has a disclaimer at the bottom noting that it is “a paid advertisement sponsored by” AFDI and “does not imply MTA’s endorsement.”
But MTA Security Director Raymond Diaz worried that the poster would nonetheless incite violence, primarily against Jews. “What matters is not AFDI’s intent, but how the ad would be interpreted,” he wrote. The line “What is yours?” could be considered a “call to violence,” particularly because the CAIR posters it was mocking never appeared in New York. When AFDI pointed out that the exact same poster had not caused any problems in Chicago or San Francisco, Diaz argued that New York was different because it is “the prime terror target” and that the “terrorist security threat” had grown worse since 2013.
On Tuesday, however, Judge Koeltl tossed out those arguments and sided with AFDI. The ads could not reasonably be considered an incitement to violence, even if someone didn’t understand them.
“The defendants admit that the actual intention of the advertisement is not to advocate the use of force, but to parody the CAIR ‘My Jihad’ campaign and to criticize Hamas and radical Islam. However, they argue that a reasonable New Yorker would not read the advertisement this way, but would instead read it as advocating the killing of Jewish people,” Koeltl wrote. “The defendants’ theory is thoroughly unpersuasive.”
After AFDI’s victory, Geller posed for photos outside the federal courthouse while holding the “Killing Jews” advertisement.
“With our NY win, our ads will make their debut on New York buses in the coming weeks,” AFDI’s Web site promises above a “donate” button. “We want to run 100. Help us make that happen.”
But even if the ads don’t incite violence in New York City, they could overseas. Earlier this month, Egypt’s top religious authority called AFDI’s posters “racist” and issued a fatwa, or official edict, against them. “This hazardous campaign will leave the gate of confrontation and clashes wide open instead of exerting efforts towards peaceful coexistence and harmony,” according to the edict.
Hamas, the group cited on the ads, has not said whether it approves of the message.