Monday, March 16, 2015

Freedom of Speech on Public Transit Advertisements

The article can be found here: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/judge-philly-public-buses-must-run-ads-linking-muslims-to-hitler/
Anti-Islamic advertisements, including the one pictured above, will soon be plastered on buses and trains in the Philadelphia and New York areas. These ads link Muslims to Hitler in a photo with the caption: "Adolf Hitler and his staunch ally, the leader of the Muslim world, Haj Amin al-Husseini." The purpose of these advertisements is to end United States aid to Islamic countries. The ads insinuate that the Islamic religion inherently hates the Jewish population, and that these sentiments are written in the Quran. To many, this seems hateful and discriminatory. These advertisements can be seem by some as hate speech. But, are the public cities of Philadelphia and New York City allowed to prohibit these advertisements? Is that a violation of the First Amendment right to Free Speech?

First, it is important to note that the subways, trains, and buses are public domain. The MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) in NYC, and the SEPTA (The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) in Philadelphia are forms of public transit. This is not a private company deciding what advertisements it wishes to display.

The ads are being published by a non-profit based in New Hampshire called The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI). The group argued that these advertisements were relevant and appropriate "in light of the fact that many Jews (and Christians) are being persecuted in Islamic countries in the Middle East." SEPTA, however, prohibits advertisements that disparages any groups based on sex, race, sexual orientation, religious preferences, disability, etc. SEPTA argued that these ads promote hateful speech against innocent civilians among its one million daily customers. SEPTA, therefore, worked to block these ads from reaching the public.

AFDI, however, filed legal complaints against SEPTA arguing that their Freedom of Speech under the First Amendment was being violated. The American Freedom Defense Initiative, a conservative non-profit group, believed that they had the right to get their message across to the millions of people who take public transit. 


When this case was brought to court, the judge ruled in favor of the AFDI, saying that SEPTA was in fact violating the group's First Amendment right to freedom of speech. "It is clear that the anti-disparagement standard promulgated by SEPTA was a principled attempt to limit hurtful, disparaging advertisements." Goldberg wrote, "While certainly laudable, such aspirations do not, unfortunately, cure First Amendment violations." So, while the court agreed that the advertisements were disparaging, the judge found that to restrict these ads is to restrict the First Amendment rights of this group.


I agree with the court's decision on this case. While I may not agree with the hateful speech written on these advertisements, I believe that every person should have freedom of speech, not just those that we agree with. These advertisements are not doing physical harm to anyone, and are simply trying to garner support for their somewhat unpopular opinion. SEPTA has run advertisements in the past that take stances on public issues such as animal cruelty, fracking, contraception, etc. If we allow groups such as Planned Parenthood or the NRA to advertise their beliefs, which are often offensive to some, why shouldn't we allow groups such as this nonprofit from New Hampshire to state their religious and political beliefs? Simply because I do not agree with their beliefs is not a good enough reason to block their right to their freedom of speech.


These ads display very strongly worded messages of hate about the beliefs of Islam. I wondered whether or not the correctness of the speech on the advertisement would affect how the court ruled. If, in fact, Islamic Jew-hatred was not in the Quran and there was no evidence of this hatred, would that make the advertisements unconstitutional? After some research, I found that the First Amendment amendment even protects incorrect speech. So, the validity of the argument on the ads are irrelevant in this instance.


I believe that the city of Philadelphia did the right thing by making it clear to the public that they do not promote the beliefs of this group, but by also respecting the findings of the court and adhering to the First Amendment. I believe that this case is different from others that we have looked at, such as the gay marriage cake, because it is a public institution that cannot deny customers in advertising simply because they wish to.


What do you think? Should public transit, such as SEPTA, be forced to display advertisements that go against their beliefs and, in their opinion, promote hate speech? Or should freedom of speech be protected whether the group is promoting love or hate?

12 comments:

Courtney W. said...

I agree with both the court and Liz in this case. I do not think that the group should be saying these things but I do think that they have the right to say them. The advertisements themselves, although they are discriminatory, should be allowed to be posted on the basis of freedom of speech. Because other politically motivated groups are allowed to post advertisements, this group should be allowed to as well, despite their message.

Libby W said...

I agree that this group has the right to post these messages because of the fact that SEPTA is a public facility. The message is definitely hurtful to some, but freedom of speech protects the right of the group to express their opinions using this method. Especially when considering that other controversial ideas have been posted before, I think AFDI has the right to say what they want, despite SEPTA not agreeing.

brian regan said...

I agree that AFDI has the right to say these things. However, it should have to be on their own forum and not on public transportation vehicles, especially because I see nothing that says AFDI on the poster. If I were to see that poster on a train I would assume it was posted by SEPTA or someone else representing the state because the government funds public transportation. I think the state would be indirectly inhibiting a religion but allowing these messages to be posted on public buses and trains.

Ben K. said...

The court decision in this case is a correct one. Speech which seeks to aid a certain public interest, no matter how unpopular that interest is, should be protected under the 1st Amendment. These ads can be considered board-line hate speech. However, they do no harm to any one person or group of people. Instead they seek to provide a knowledge that an issue is out there. If these ads began to infringe on other’s rights, such as prompting violence in our society, than the line of protection of free speech under the 1st Amendment has been crossed. People do not need to support an issue but they must allow others to speak.

Abby Copp said...

I agree with Liz, the court, and the other commentors on this post. I think Brian brought up a really good point in saying that there should be some sort of information stating that the advertisements were created and sponsored by AFDI and not by SEPTA. I believe that I would feel differently if SEPTA were a private entity, because then this situation would be more like the baker and the hate speech instance, where the baker and SEPTA could refuse to involve themselves.

Nate Hunter said...

Like everyone before me, I agree that the AFDI has the right to advertise their views. Even though I may not agree with them as SEPTA also does, that doesn't mean that they can just be denied the privileges and benefits that all other people receive from the transportation systems advertising. In my opinion the speech itself would have to be more harmful and malicious in order for SEPTA to have a legitimate reason for denial of service. If the AFDI were to be denied, it would be a violation of the first amendments Freedom of Speech Clause.

Emily C. said...

I agree with Liz and the Court that AFDI's advertisements are constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. In response to Brian's comment, I would argue that it is the responsibility of the state to make it clear that they do not support these advertisements. If the state fears being associated with this speech outlet, they can distance themselves, but I do not think it is the responsibility of AFDI to make it clear that their belief is not supported by the state.

Ana M. said...

I disagree with the author’s argument. Though we are guaranteed freedom of speech by our constitution, every right has a limit. In this case, there is a limit to the type of speech allowed. How different would this be if a group like the Ku Klux Klan decided to write racist statements on public transportation? There is no constitutional guarantee that every individual will be satisfied however, I believe that there is a compelling state interest to prevent this type of hateful speech. I would be less opposed to this if this group decided to put their message in private property. First and foremost, the job of this country is to protect its citizens from this kind of hateful and discriminatory actions. This usage of speech could be harmful to those who identify with the characteristics listed in the advertisements.

Tommy S said...

I agree with Ana on this one. There is a compelling state interest to not post these advertisements. It could stir anti-Muslim sentiments, which is already a problem in this country. Additionally, if the portion about hating Jews in the Quran is not true that could be considered slander--which is not protected by Freedom of Speech, as it would damage the reputation of a whole religion.

Kristen B. said...

I agree with Liz in thinking that the court made the correct decision. America prides itself on the fact that its citizens have the freedom to believe in whatever they want as well as the freedom of speech. Since the state government announced that it did not support these advertisements, there is no reason why the government should get involved in regulating the legitimacy and the effect of the advertisements. People have different opinions and beliefs throughout the country and everyone deserves the right to say what they believe as long as the government is not supporting their statements.

Morgan M said...

In this case I agree with Ana and against the author. As the case is that this advertising is all over public transportation, I think that the government has a secular interest in prohibiting such messages from being conveyed. It is not that that I do not believe these people are entitled to their opinion or that they can not openly speak it, but I do not think that such opinions have a place on public transportation which thousands of people will be seeing every day. The government has a right to be able to block such ads from being promoted, much like they would likely block a KKK ad from being campaigned. Everyone has a right to free speech but public property should not be the conveyor of such controversial topics.

Geet choudhary said...

Transit advertisement is basically advertisement that is placed on anything which moves, like Taxi Advertising , subway advertise, Auto Ads, and buses, but also includes fixed static and Digital advertising at train and bus stop and platforms .
Auto advertising is great at reaching targeted customers, business people and tourists.