Commuters Call for Censorship

New Yorkers favor free speech, but only to a certain extent.

Subway Ads

The advertisements are everywhere. On the bus. Inside the train. There is no escape from breast implantation or condom ads on the city’s public transportation. And soon New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority will even run a controversial ad that says: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah.”

The ad will appear after a court battle. On Tuesday, U.S. Southern District Judge John Koetl ruled in favor of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a pro-Israel group that is behind the “Killing Jews” ad, stating that the First Amendment protected such speech. The MTA had originally declined to run the ad, fearing that it would incite violence. This court decision comes after another legal battle between the MTA and the American Freedom Defense Initiative in which the MTA blocked a similar anti-Muslim ad, arguing that the ads violated its “no demeaning” language ad policy in 2012.

The MTA’s current policy prohibits ads that demean an individual or group based on race, religion, or creed, but Judge Koetl argued MTA officials underestimate what New Yorkers can stomach and overestimated the probable impact of the ads.

In spite of Judge Koetl’s ruling, some New Yorkers, in a random survey on the city’s subway and buses, said that they believe the MTA should have the right to censor controversial promotions, including those with sexual undertones.

Jennifer Wallis, 43, said she was surprised to learn that the MTA couldn’t stop the American Freedom Defense Initiative from running its ads referring to Muslims murdering Jews. “That’s almost hate speech,” she said.

Wallis said she realized the First Amendment prevented the MTA, a government agency, from prohibiting freedom of speech, however, she believed there should be some government censorship to protect children. “My three-year old reads everything on the subway. I don’t want him reading that,” she said. “Adults have the ability to screen it out, but our children cannot.”

Another train rider, Marnie Hall, had even stronger sentiments about the “Killing Jews” ad that will run soon. “I suppose it’s legal, but it’s disgusting,” she said. But she felt less disturbed with breast implants and condom ads that promote safe sex. “It doesn’t bother me. People should do what they want with their bodies and have safe sex,” said Hall, 72.

Some New Yorkers, like Gopal Sukhu, 65, an adjunct professor of East Asian studies at Columbia University, worry that the controversial anti-jihad ad might even lead people to contemplate violence.   Free speech is important, said Sukhu, but it should have limits.

Even if an ad could make some people contemplate violence, it isn’t illegal under the First Amendment. Since the MTA allows commercial and noncommercial ads on its trains and buses, the agency can’t censor certain ads, even if they are offensive, said Jamal Greene, a Columbia Law School professor.

There are a couple exceptions in which the government can prohibit freedom of expression. Either the speech uses language that would cause a reasonable person to act violently, or language that would provoke imminent violence, he argued.

Although freedom of speech allows people to say whatever they want in this country, it seems, many New Yorkers still don’t want to see ads that demean a group of people based on race or religion. Especially, when riding the bus or train. But it looks like they are not going to have much of a choice.

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