NY transit system bans all political ads on subways, buses

AP News
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Posted: Apr 29, 2015 1:06 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — The nation's largest mass transit system banned all political advertising on its subways and buses Wednesday after a judge ruled that a pro-Israel group was allowed to display an advertisement containing the phrase "Hamas Killing Jews" on New York City buses.

The resolution passed at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board meeting, prompting indignation from members of the board and the public who accused the agency of blocking New Yorkers' first amendment rights.

"The New York City transit system is our public square," argued Christopher Dunn, who works for the New York Civil Liberties Union. "It is the place that virtually all of us pass through day in and day out. And because of that, it is a central part of our speech in New York City."

The cash-strapped agency says such advertising only accounts for less than $1 million of its annual advertising revenue of $138 million.

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said the policy is effective immediately. The agency is checking to see if any political ads are currently running in the system, and if so, what the timeline would be for removing them.

"Advertisements expressing viewpoint messages, regardless of the viewpoint being expressed, would no longer be accepted," the MTA's general counsel, Jerome Page, told the committee on Monday.

Pamela Geller, the woman behind the lawsuit, showed up at the meeting with placards of the proposed ads in tow.

"You call my ads hateful?" she said. "These are actual quotes. Why aren't we talking about the ideology behind these quotes?"

New York is following in the footsteps of cities including Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, which have already banned political ads on public transit, the agency said.

The lawsuit was filed last year by the American Freedom Defense Initiative after the MTA notified the group in August that it would display three of four proposed advertisements but not an ad with the quote "Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah" because it could incite violence. In the ad, a covered face is shown next to the quote, which is attributed to "Hamas MTV." It is followed by the words: "That's his Jihad. What's yours?"

Page said the decision to change MTA policy on advertising was prompted by safety concerns.

"We drew the line when we thought our customers, our employees and the public were in danger," he said. "The judge gave short shrift to those concerns."

The judge stayed the effect of the decision for a month so that it can be appealed. But the change in advertising policy renders an appeal unnecessary.

"Under the First Amendment, the fear of such spontaneous attacks, without more, cannot override individuals' rights to freedom of expression," Judge John Koeltl said in the ruling.

The decision to ban ads implies that New Yorkers are not as smart as people in other cities, said board member Andrew Albert.

"(It says) that we can't determine the difference between hate speech and political speech and hemorrhoid-related ads," Albert said. "New Yorkers are pretty sharp in that regard."