The mass transit authority that oversees commuter buses and trains in the nation’s capital is banning issue-oriented ads for the remainder of the year after receiving an ad proposal featuring a cartoon of Muhammad, Islam’s central figure.

The cartoon that prompted the decision was apparently this one, a combination of an earlier cartoon by artist Bosch Fawstin with the addition of the caption “Support Free Speech,” and the American Freedom Defense Initiative logo:

It’s hard to characterize this, I think, as speech derogatory of Muslims in general as people (though such speech would be constitutionally protected, and in my view couldn’t be restricted through viewpoint-based rules banning such derogatory expression). It is rather criticism of a particular belief, the belief that no one is allowed to draw Muhammad, on pain of punishment by the sword. Indeed, it is prescient criticism, given the juxtaposition of the ad and the metro system’s response to it. As artistic statements go, this one is spot-on.

The reason for restricting it, then — even by totally rejecting all issue-oriented ads, in an attempt to make the restriction viewpoint-neutral — seems likely to be either a general condemnation of blasphemy, or a specific fear that speech that offends extremist Muslims is too dangerous for American transport agencies to display. And indeed, this is what “Former D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who served 12 years as a member of the Metro system’s board of directors and twice as its chairman” told the U.S. News:

Graham says he instinctively supports people’s freedom to advertise controversial messages, recalling his fight to place HIV awareness ads in the D.C. system in the early days of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s.
But he says current board members are “obviously in a bind because we know what happens when you criticize Muhammad, we know how some people react to that. I don’t think we ever had a situation [in the past] where someone threatened to blow up a bus.”
Graham says he’s not aware of any credible threat in response to the ad, but that, “We know worldwide what has happened to others who have gone down this path.”
“My view is, you put that ad up on the side of a bus, you turn that bus into a terrorism target,” a top Metro official said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the agency anticipates being sued over the ban. “I think it’s a very bad outcome for everybody. But it’s a risk we don’t want to put our passengers under.” …
“I think there’s a potential threat and a danger if we were to accept that ad,” Metro board member Michael Goldman said. “Better to be safe than sorry. I mean, this is the nation’s capital. If anything is going to happen, it’s probably going to happen here.”

I sympathize with the Metro officials; they have responsibilities to their passengers, and their employees, and they’re trying to keep them safe. That’s a natural and often laudable human reaction.

But the consequence is obvious: We have come to the point, as Americans, that “we know what happens when you criticize Muhammad, we know how some people react to that” — and therefore the thugs get to veto what images get displayed in public places. And of course the danger of attack is potentially present in all public places, not just buses but university campuses, bookstores, and pretty much anywhere else. Our birthright as Americans is being slowly blocked, by institution after institution, because of the reaction (individually reasonable as it might seem) to those who are willing to use violence to suppress speech they dislike.

And of course there’s little reason to think such a thug’s veto would stop with this speech. Behavior that is rewarded is repeated, and broadened: “Once you have paid the Dane-geld / You never get rid of the Dane.” And Muslim extremists aren’t the only ones who learn this lesson; others, too, are already realizing, if your goal is suppressing speech, thuggery pays. I think accepting this will ultimately prove the “sorry” outcome, not the “safe” one in any but the narrowest senses of safety.