NEW YORK —
The New York City transit system is being challenged in federal court by two young Muslim comedians who want to advertise their new movie on subways.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority signed a contract for promotion of "Beware: The Muslims Are Coming" on subways. But it now says the film contains disputed, pro-Muslim content, and it wants to block the ads.
Comedians Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah, whose Vaguely Qualified Productions made the film, say the bid to block the ads violates their First Amendment free-speech rights, and they're suing the MTA for allegedly reneging on a signed contract. They have already spent almost $20,000.
Glenn Katon, legal director for Muslim Advocates, said the MTA made the wrong call.
“You can’t dispute comedy," he said. "You can’t dispute the underlying message, which is Muslims are human beings, some of whom have a sense of humor. These are things that I don’t think anyone can reasonably dispute."
The MTA's decision represents something of a turnaround. It got out of so-called "political messaging" after being burned in a lawsuit over its efforts last year to keep ads sponsored by anti-Islamic campaigner Pamela Geller off its buses.
But the transit authority's latest decision is "loopy," said transit watchdog Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group's Straphangers Campaign.
“It’s really important to have free speech in the New York City subways," Russianoff said. "For people who don’t live in New York, they’re like the streets. They’re where you go to communicate, where you listen to music that's being played by performers on platforms.”
"Beware: The Muslims are Coming" is now playing on major streaming services, and the subway promotion was important to the two comedians. They felt betrayed by the MTA contract decision.
“What’s political about saying Muslims love frittatas ... or other posters, like Muslims hate a lot of things, like hipsters who wear winter hats in the summertime?" Obeidallah asked. "There’s nothing political about expressing who we are and telling our story. That’s really the point about this.”
Farsad called the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution "totally awesome. It protects speech, all kinds of speech, even speech that we don’t like, and that’s what makes it great.”
What this culturally conscious comedy team is doing could open the way not only for them and their comedic viewpoints, but for others with very different opinions.