Hateful bus ads are free speech 

An offensive and bigoted advertising campaign about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now running on Muni buses. Yet despite the repulsive nature of these advertisements, they must be allowed to run to protect the advertiser’s free-speech rights.

A few weeks ago, signs appeared on 10 Muni buses that said, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.” The American Freedom Defense Initiative, an organization so extreme it has been deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, purchased the ads. The group is led by Pamela Geller, a blogger and writer who defended the campaign by noting the message is protected by the First Amendment.

And as much as we disagree with the content of her ads, we agree with Geller that the message is protected speech and that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, should not block this message or others like it in the future.

Banning the ads would be limiting speech based on the type of message that is conveyed, which clearly violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In fact, in a fight over the same advertisements in New York City, Geller won a court battle after the messages were barred from the transit system there.

There are limits to free speech, but while these ads toe the line, they do not cross it. If the messages incited violent action against a group, that line would have been crossed. The transit agency also has guidelines for what type of advertisements can be prohibited, but these do not meet any of those criteria either. Geller seems to have crafted her hateful ads to garner attention without being censored.

First Amendment protections apply to every type of message, not just the ones we agree with. Letting Muni or any other governmental body censor speech based on the message would send the SFMTA  down a perilous road that is best not taken — and one that the courts, rightly, would not let the agency take.

Muni has stated its opposition to the message of the advertisements without removing them. To start with, the transit agency donated the $3,800 of income from the ads to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission for educational activities. In addition, the agency started running ads next to Geller’s that say, “SFMTA policy prohibits discrimination based on national origin, religion, and other characteristics and condemns statements that describe any group as ‘savages.’”

The Bay Area was home to the free-speech movement, and it is important to remember how valuable those rights are. Everyone is right to condemn these hateful ads, but local calls for their removal are wrong. Better to use the ads as a starting point to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the extremist views that people hold about the dispute. After all, merely banning a viewpoint from a Muni bus will not make it disappear entirely.

Advertising policy

No ad on Muni may …

  • Be false, misleading or deceptive;
  • Concern a declared political candidate or ballot measure scheduled for consideration by the voters in an upcoming election, or an initiative petition submitted to the San Francisco Department of Elections;
  • Appear to promote the use of firearms;
  • Be clearly defamatory;
  • Be obscene or pornographic;
  • Advocate imminent lawlessness or violent action;
  • Promote alcoholic beverages or tobacco products;
  • Infringe on any copyright, trade or service mark, title or slogan.

Source: SFMTA

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