A series of controversial advertisements on Muni buses has spurred a signature-gathering effort to remove the signs and forced the agency to reconsider its position on advertisements moving forward.
The ads, paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative — an organization deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — say, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.”
Muni, in a statement Tuesday, affirmed that the ads, which began running Aug. 7 are protected by the First Amendment. But the tone of the message has drawn criticism.
Change.org, a grass-roots advocacy group, has asked its members to write to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, and request that the advertisements be removed.
“Declaring a whole people “savages” belongs in the dustbin of 19th century colonial racism, not on a city bus in the 21st Century of a progressive city like San Francisco,” the Change.org petition effort claims.
Sydney Levy, director of advocacy for Jewish Voice For Peace, said the SFMTA should at least insert a large disclaimer near the ads indicating that the agency doesn’t support the message of the campaign.
“This is very offensive, particularly at a time when anti-Islam incidents are rising in California,” Levy said. “The message is certainly out of tune with the values of San Francisco.”
Pamela Geller, the head of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, defended her campaign, saying her speech was protected under First Amendment rights.
“The goal of the campaign is to defend the truth and awaken people to reality,” said Geller, who plans on rolling out the campaign to other cities across the nation. “Fallacious anti-Israel propaganda must be challenged.”
Paul Rose, spokesman for the SFMTA, said the signs were approved by Titan Outdoor, the private company that is contracted by the agency to run its advertising campaigns on vehicles. Officials with the company reviewed the SFMTA’s advertising policy before authorizing the signs, Rose said.
The agency’s policy bans ads that are clearly defamatory, pornographic, advocate imminent violence or are false and misleading. There are also restrictions against political campaigns and ads promoting alcohol and cigarettes.
“While this ad is protected under the First Amendment, our ad policy and our contractual obligations, we condemn the use of any language that belittles, demeans or disparages others. Going forward, we will review our policies with regards to ads on the Muni system,” the SFMTA said in a statement from board of directors Chairman Tom Nolan and Ed Reiskin, director of transportation for the SFMTA.
The New York Metropolitan Transportation Agency attempted to bar Geller’s group from using the same advertising campaign on its buses. However, a federal judge ruled against the agency last month, deeming the ads protected speech.
Evan Lee, a professor of law at UC Hastings, said SFMTA officials would likely be violating the First Amendment if they removed the sign, since the decision would be based on the content of the message.
“These are expressed political opinions that are protected speech,” Lee said. “If the signs said ‘Support the Civilized Man.
Support Israel. Kill a Muslim’, that would be over the line, as it would be likely to incite people. But clearly these signs haven’t reached that limit.”
Muni said it will donate the $3,800 from the four-week campaign for educational activities of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story was published without comments from Pamela Geller, who responded after The San Francisco Examiner's press deadline.