Coming Soon to a Bus Near You: Ads Likening Muslims to Hitler

Cash-strapped public transit systems are considering running ads from controversial sources.

(Photo: Twitter)

Mar 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jacob Adelman has covered energy, land use and real estate for Bloomberg News in Tokyo and The Associated Press in Los Angeles. He is currently based in Philadelphia.

Last year, a controversial group sought to plaster Philadelphia buses with photos of Adolf Hitler in an ad campaign equating Islam with anti-Semitism. The region’s transit agency—the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority—faced a tough choice. The agency could run the American Freedom Defense Initiative’s ad and offend many of its riders and employees, or it could reject the ad and probably find itself in court fighting accusations that it violated the group’s constitutional right to free speech. That, after all, is what happened when transit agencies in New York and San Francisco rejected ads from AFDI.

The offer, however, couldn’t be considered on moral terms alone. SEPTA, like its peers across the country, is strapped for cash, and public transit agencies increasingly rely on a variety of things—including ads—to generate revenue to keep trains and buses running. AFDI’s campaign would have covered the sides of two buses for about five weeks, generating between $5,000 and $10,000.

Barely $14 million of SEPTA’s $1.2 billion annual operating budget comes from advertising. The rest comes from fares, subsides, and other sources. “We operate on such a thin margin,” said Jacky Grimshaw, who researches transportation issues as a vice president at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, an advocacy group, and serves on the board of the Chicago Transit Authority.

Ultimately, SEPTA officials declined to accept the ads, mainly because the agency’s rules prohibit ads that disparage groups based on religion. The AFDI sued. “We were willing to fight,” said Jerri Williams, a SEPTA spokeswoman.

Earlier this month, a federal judge rejected SEPTA’s argument, writing that the agency’s anti-disparagement rules violate the First Amendment. SEPTA now finds itself in the hole for legal fees far in excess of the potential revenue from that ad.

The AFDI was the first organization to ask SEPTA to run ads openly critical of a religion or racial group. In tax documents, AFDI describes itself as a bulwark against socialism and Islamic supremacy. Its president, Pamela Geller, has lobbied against the construction of a mosque near the former site of New York’s World Trade Center, and she was banned from entering the United Kingdom after that country deemed her blog postings critical of Islam “not conducive to the public good.”

AFDI’s proposed bus ad features a 1941 photograph of Hitler seated with Arab nationalist and cleric Haj Amin al-Husseini, whom a caption identifies as “the leader of the Muslim world.” The ad’s headline reads: “Islamic Jew Hatred: It’s in the Quran.” In an email, Geller wrote, “The ads are intended to call attention to and raise awareness about Islamic anti-Semitism.”

The dispute with SEPTA followed a playbook familiar to watchers of AFDI, said Ryan Tack-Hooper, a staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Philadelphia chapter. AFDI targets transit agencies with inflammatory ads that are likely to be rejected, Tack-Hooper said. That way, it can sue over the rejection and enjoy publicity from court cases and the resulting media coverage. The transit agencies, then, find themselves liable for AFDI’s own legal fees after losing the cases.

Geller disputes that characterization and insists her group aims to “counter ads by anti-Israel hate groups.”

Tack-Hooper’s organization had supported AFDI’s constitutional right to run its ad, despite the offense it would cause many of its members. “We think it’s pretty clearly their First Amendment right,” he said. “We’ll take it as an opportunity to show why the ad is wrong.”

SEPTA, meanwhile, is considering whether to appeal the ruling. If not, said Williams, the agency will look at how other agencies compelled to run the ads were able to do so while tempering their message.