Don’t Censor My Commute
SUBWAY platforms and bus shelters have become the newest targets of political correctness.
The mass transit agencies in Washington, New York and Philadelphia have all moved to ban political advertising, in response to the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a group known for criticizing Islam.
In Philadelphia, a federal judge in March ordered the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority to accept a bus ad from the group that shows a 1941 meeting of Adolf Hitler and a Palestinian Arab nationalist leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini, with the line: “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s in the Quran.” On Thursday, after the ads came down, the agency banned future advertising “expressing or advocating an opinion, position or viewpoint about economic, political, religious, historical or social issues.”
That same day, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority suspended all “issue-oriented” advertising through the end of the year, after the anti-Islam group tried to place an ad attacking the Prophet Muhammad.
Officials aren’t calling it censorship, though that’s exactly what they’re doing. The wording of the rules the Metropolitan Transportation Authority approved in April – banning political speech, including that aimed at “the action, inaction, prospective action or policies of a governmental entity” – makes the danger obvious.
These policies amount to a status-quo protection plan, allowing political speech by the government while denying everyone else the right to protest. For example, New York State would be permitted to run ads claiming that the state is business-friendly, but an individual or group could be blocked from placing ads claiming that state taxes are too high.
The New York ban came after a federal judge ordered the M.T.A. to allow an ad from the American Freedom Defense Initiative that states, “Killing Jews is worship that draws us close to Allah,” ruling that it was protected speech. To circumvent that ruling, the M.T.A. now seeks to allow only commercial, governmental and “public service” ads.
But government ads are political ads, whether transit officials want to admit it or not.
“Government” is another word for the political winners. The new M.T.A. rule silences the losers.
The M.T.A. chairman, Thomas F. Prendergast, has said his agency was “diverted” from its main work by the distraction of dealing with the controversial ads, an argument also cited in Washington and Philadelphia. He and his colleagues either don’t realize or don’t care that freedom requires tolerating distasteful ideas. “If liberty means anything at all,” George Orwell wrote, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
And that’s what organizations like the American Freedom Defense Initiative do: They say things that many people don’t want to hear.
Yes, public safety is important, of course, but transit agencies cannot kowtow in fear merely because someone has made – or might make – a threat of violence, and certainly not because an ad might be offensive.
The courts have not always been on the right side of this issue. In recent cases involving transportation systems in Boston and Seattle, federal judges ruled that the government could ban ads that demeaned a particular group (in the Boston case) or that might incite violence (in the Seattle case). The disagreement among lower federal courts could prompt a review by the United States Supreme Court.
Some would urge the Supreme Court to draw a clear line between free speech and hate speech, and bar the latter. This is nonsense. We Americans have always squabbled about ideas and values. The more unpopular or hateful the idea, the more protection it needs.
How would the Supreme Court see things? In 1974, the court decided a case concerning whether the city of Shaker Heights, Ohio, could ban political advertising on its public buses. In a 5-to-4 decision, the court ruled that the city’s policy did not violate the First Amendment, arguing that a city transit system was not a forum for public debate and that such advertisements forced a political message on a captive audience.
But that was four decades ago. The current court is unlikely to tolerate banning political ads on buses and in subways and other public places. The free exchange of ideas, including the freedom to criticize government, is the bedrock of liberty. That’s why our Bill of Rights says that government shall make no law abridging it. ☐
Betsy McCaughey, the lieutenant governor of New York from 1995 to 1998, is the author of “Government by Choice: Inventing the United States Constitution.”