Public Advocate Letitia James and 32 members of the City Council have sent a letter calling on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to reject a series of ads that they say are anti-Muslim and could provoke violence.
The ads were purchased by the group American Freedom Defense Initiative, which claims they tell the truth about the dangers of radical Islam.
The Oct. 10 letter to MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast claims they “sow hate, create discord and promote violence against Muslims and those who appear to be Muslim, namely Sikhs.”
One of the ads depicts Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary in a photo as a musician in London. A second one depicts him as the masked man who is about to behead American journalist James Foley, and some Western intelligence agencies have identified him as the killer.
Councilman Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans), the only Muslim on the City Council, said both in a statement and a telephone interview that he believes the ads cross the line of protected free speech when the intent is to incite violence.
“I find the ads particularly offensive and not a true representation of the Muslim community, which continues to be a great contributor to our city,” Miller said in a statement accompanying the Prendergast letter. In an interview, he said common sense has to prevail.
“I think this runs counter to public safety,” Miller said. “This is yelling ‘fire!’ in a crowded movie theater. You do have to take the First Amendment, but when you incite violence, that crosses the line.”
Miller also said he would take a dim view of similar advertisements that might, using an example offered by the Chronicle, refer to Israel as an apartheid state.
The signatories of the letter to the MTA, which included Queens Council members Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton), Costa Costantinides (D-Astoria), Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), Peter Koo (D-Flushing), Paul Vallone (D-Bayside), Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens), Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) and Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside).
The letter states that in the past year there has been a 143 percent increase in anti-Muslim crimes in the city, and that the ad campaign is likely to exacerbate the problem.
“[W]e believe that under your viewpoint-neutral ad policy and judicially recognized non-public spaces of your system, the MTA is well within its legal authority to remove the ads in part, and reject additional advertisements.”
The letter also said other transit systems in the country have rejected similar ads, while saying the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and district courts in Massachusetts and Washington state have upheld such decisions.
But the MTA has some legal precedent of its own in this area. In 2012 a federal court ruled that the MTA had violated the First Amendment by rejecting an ad from AFDI which called Israel’s opponents savages.
“Our hands are tied,” said an MTA spokesman in an email. “A court ruled that our earlier ‘no demeaning’ advertising ran afoul of the First Amendment. These ads are in compliance with our revised advertising standard, including a disclaimer that they do not imply any endorsement by the MTA.”
The agency did reject an ad from the group in September that did not meet the revised standards.