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Anti-Terrorism Group Threatens Lawsuit Against D.C. Transit Agency Over Ad Policy
Ad Policy Gives in to Terrorism Fears
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is likely to get sued by a right wing group that has been vocal in opposing Islamic terrorist threats, according to the group's president.
WMATA's board voted unanimously to ban ads from advocacy organizations after the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) asked the transit agency to post a cartoon that depicts the prophet Mohammed.
Muslims consider drawings or other depictions of the prophet to be sacrilegious.
AFDI sponsored a competition on May 4, 2015 that offered a $10,000 award for the best drawing of the prophet Mohammed. Two men associated with the radical Islamic group ISIS responded by attacking a crowd of people at the competition site in Garland, Texas with guns.
They shot and injured one man before a security guard shot and killed both of them.
WMATA's board of directors mentioned the risk of similar terrorist attacks when it voted to ban the kind of advertising sought by AFDI.
AFDI President Pamela Geller told The Legal Forum (www.legal-forum.net) her group would "review our legal options" after receiving official notice from WMATA about why the group's ad was rejected.
"I want to challenge it," Geller said in an email to The Legal Forum.
AFDI asked to run the ads under a $20,000 contract on 20 WMATA buses and at five subway stations throughout June. The ad is intended to drum up support for free speech against terrorism. It shows a turban-wearing image of Mohammed waving a sword and yelling, “You can’t draw me!”
A cartoon bubble portrays an artist holding a pencil and replying, “That’s why I draw you.”
An attempt by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to reject AFDI's ads was overridden by a federal court last month. AFDI's attorneys successfully argued that singling out the group for a ban violated its First Amendment free speech rights. The New York transit agency responded by banning all ads by advocacy groups.
AFDI's ad falls into the gray area between free speech on social issues and commercial free speech. If the group displayed the same images and messages in a different public forum, there would be few legal controls over its message. But the group chose to convey its message through paid advertisements, which gives the company with the advertising contract a right to limit ads that endanger public health or safety.
WMATA's board took a cue from New York when it decided to ban all ads that addressed social or political issues. That way, AFDI would have more difficulty arguing they were singled out for a free speech violation. Philadelphia's Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority enacted the same kind of ban.
WMATA’s board explained their ban with a statement saying, “In the coming months, Metro will fully consider the impact that issue-related advertisements have on the community by gathering input from riders, local community groups and advocates. Metro will also carefully examine the legal concerns related to displaying, or discontinuing the display of, issue-related advertisements.”