Balancing free speech with security

Oct. 5, 2012
Controversial transit ads in NYC, D.C. have sparked terror concerns

Ads recently placed on New York subways and potentially coming soon to several Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority stations have ignited a firestorm of controversy and also raised potential security concerns. Paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the ads say "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad." Many say the ads are anti-Islamic and are calling for them to be pulled over worries they may incite violent attacks.

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority initially rejected the ad, but their decision was later overturned by a federal judge, who ruled that it was protected under the First Amendment. WMATA also suspended placing the ads citing public safety concerns. The fate of the D.C. ads will be decided by a federal district court judge who heard oral arguments in the case this week.

The public safety concerns of the these transit authorities are certainly valid given last month’s attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the outrage that has spread across the Middle East in the wake of the release of a YouTube trailer of a low-budget movie which negatively depicts the Prophet Muhammad. However, the group behind the ads isn’t buying the public safety argument.

"My ads can run anytime," AFDI co-founder Pamela Geller told news outlet Politico. "Their argument was absurd to begin with, as well as dangerous - it sets the precedent that anyone who doesn't like some speech can be violent about it and thereby shut it up."

Of course, this isn’t the first time that an inflammatory transit ad has sparked security concerns. Two years ago, transit officials in Seattle pulled a pro-Palestinian ad from the side of buses that featured a picture of children standing around a building reduced to rubble with the words "Israeli war crimes. Your tax dollars at work." The group responsible for the ads, the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, believes that the transit authority’s decision to pull the ads also violated their right to free speech. As fate would have it, arguments in that case were heard this week before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

These ads present a quandary for those responsible for the safety of riders on these transit systems. One could argue that transit security managers in these cities, particularly New York and Washington D.C., are already operating under a heightened sense of alert being that they are a prime terrorism target anyway because of their location, regardless of the placement of any potentially inflammatory ads. Then again, there has been a history of retaliatory attacks or at least planned acts of violence in similar instances, be it the plot that was discovered to attack a Danish newspaper after it published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad or the recent wave of attacks against U.S. embassies in the Middle East over the “Innocence of Muslims” film.

Being a journalist, I’m certainly a supporter of freedom of speech, but there’s a responsibility that also comes with that right. Are these ads tantamount to yelling fire in a crowded theater? No, but I’m sure they will make passengers that ride on these rail cars or buses feel unsafe. The groups behind these ads have a right to publish them, but why add anxiety to the lives of people who are just going about their daily routines?