WASHINGTON — A U.S. District Court judge in Washington DC has ruled that the city’s subway system must allow a pro-Israel ad that equates Muslim radicals with savages to be displayed in Metro stations. Legal experts say there is no way around the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of speech, even when some people consider that speech offensive.
Metro officials had raised concerns that this ad could incite violence especially after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.
The ad reads: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.”
To many Muslims, jihad means an internal spiritual struggle. But some have used the religious concept as an excuse for violence.
Nihad Awad is executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations. The group advocates for American Muslims.
“So far the overwhelming majority of those who viewed the ads condemned them. Condemned the bigotry, the hatred behind it, and the organizers of it,” Awad said.
The ads are sponsored by The American Freedom Defense Initiative, a pro-Israel group that says it is fighting against the Islamization of America. Two U.S. civil rights organizations list it as a hate group.
The group won a similar court fight in New York, where the ads went up in subway stations in September. Pamela Geller is executive director of AFDI. She dismisses assertions that recent events should delay the ads.
“It’s never a good time. If it’s not an ad, it’s a film. If it’s not a film it’s a teddy bear. If it’s not a teddy bear, it is a Danish cartoon, or a Swedish cartoon. Or a French cartoon. When is a good time to speak openly and candidly about jihad?,” Geller said.
Washington Metro officials say the FBI is investigating a threat of violence if the ads ran. There have been minor reports of vandalism to the ads that were put up in New York, but overall criticism has been restrained.
Benetta Standly, Washington director of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the fear of violence does not mean the the First Amendment, which protects free speech, can be overridden. She argues the way to counter hateful speech is to speak out against it peacefully.
“In this country, the answer to offensive or hateful speech is simply more speech to counter that. So what we see happening now in the Washington, D.C., Metro transit system is people are starting to put up different advertisements that counter the hateful speech,” Standly said.
American Muslim organizations plan to put their own ads in Metro stations within days.
“I think this is what everyone needs to see. They want to see messages that emphasize love, compassion, coexistence, and reconciliation. Not hateful messages that are designed to rip the fabric of the United States and to divide people along ethnic and religious lines,” Awad said.