The epic battle between American Freedom Defense Initiative executive director and blogger Pamela Geller and The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) culminated with a court decision that forced the transit authority to permit the display of controversial ads about radical Islam. But the story didn’t end there. As TheBlaze reported this morning, Geller’s case caused the MTA to rethink the manner in which it handles First Amendment issues, leading to the adoption of some potentially-controversial measures.
On Friday, TheBlaze spoke with a spokesperson who confirmed some of the details surrounding the case, while clarifying the new changes that passed on Thursday. As noted, one of the emergent provisions that was added into the public company’s advertising standards in the wake of the Geller debate allows the MTA to deny ads it believes could incite violence (this was not mentioned in the press release the agency put out about the changes).
As previously noted, a document, reflecting yesterday’s changes, was provided by the MTA to TheBlaze this morning. It highlights the transit authority’s advertising standards and reads, in part, “The licensee (‘advertising contractor’) shall not display or maintain any advertisement that falls within one or more of the following categories.” One of the category sections reads:
The advertisement, or any information contained in it, is directly adverse to the commercial or administrative interests of the MTA or is harmful to the morale of MTA employees or contains material the display of which the MTA reasonably foresees would incite or provoke violence or other immediate breach of the peace, and so harm, disrupt, or interfere with safe, efficient, and orderly transit operations.
It is the portion presented in bold that is new to the regulations. It’s inclusion is interesting for a number of reasons. On the surface, it appears oddly placed in the list of grievances that could lead to the banning of an advertisement. Furthermore, there is some ambiguity regarding what led to the inclusion of the “violence” reference in the first place.
Here’s a screen shot from the official document:
In an e-mail reply, MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan told TheBlaze that the change was among the “outstanding issues” that the agency was looking to tackle in the new regulatory document.
“Since we hadn’t updated our advertising standards in 15 years, we used this opportunity to address several outstanding issues or potential hypothetical situations,” he wrote. “This is one of them.”
TheBlaze responded with additional questions about the motivations for the change, asking how, in particular, the MTA’s court battle with Geller impacted the new restriction on violent ads. Donovan responded, admitting that the dilemma did play an integral role in the decision to make the change.
“The ad, and more specifically the litigation surrounding it, caused us to think about a variety of potential scenarios and review our standards more carefully within a prism of First Amendment law,” he commented.
Considering that the MTA has made its opposition to the ad’s message known in the past — and taking into account continued calls for bans on blasphemy and offensive messages — the natural question is: Will this new regulation serve as a backdoor method for banning controversial ads that take aim at specific faiths, like Islam?
To gain a better perspective, TheBlaze asked who would be involved in the process of defining which messages incite violence and what the metrics for doing so would be.
“It would go through the same process we currently use to determine whether ads meet the overall guidelines,” Donovan explained. “Ads are submitted to our advertising contractor, CBS Outdoor, for posting and approval.”
Once the ads are submitted, Donovan said that CBS then decides which ones need to be scrutinized more closely to ensure they meet guidelines. Considering the other MTA regulation that was adopted on Thursday — the requirement that political, religious and morality-based ads include a disclaimer separating their ideals from the agency’s — the spokesperson said that CBS would also be involved in flagging ads for that purpose.
“The MTA’s final determination is made by the MTA’s Director of Real Estate, in consultation with CBS Outdoor (our ad contractor), the MTA’s General Counsel, the Chairman, and others he may choose to consult with,” he continued, highlighting how potentially-violent ads will be assessed.
Still, considering these elements, the issue needs further exploration. The language seems fluid enough to present further First Amendment battles in the future — especially considering the guidelines’ subjective nature.
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