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In the wake of Middle Eastern furor and intense anti-American sentiment, “blasphemy” has been a hot topic in both media and political circles. With some leaders calling for bans on insults against Islam, fascinating and intense free-speech debates are continuously unfolding. In New York City, where controversy has swirled around blogger Pamela Geller’s ad aimed at Islamic extremism, some are questioning The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the company governing the public transit system, and its new regulations surrounding controversial advertisements.
Following the Geller incident (though there’s no conclusive evidence of late that it is directly related), the MTA has now added a provision blocking any advertisements that “would incite or provoke violence” — a noteworthy change, specifically when considering current sociopolitical conversations.
Before we delve too deeply into NYC’s new-found regulations, let’s look at a brief history of the debate. The battle over Geller’s ad has been a fascinating one. Initially, the MTA refused to allow it to be posted on NYC subways, claiming that it was “demeaning.” But this quickly changed in August, when U.S. District Court Judge Paul Engelmayer ruled that the ad is protected under the First Amendment (read the history behind the ad here). As a result, the ads were finally posted at 10 subway stops, which subsequently sparked outrage.
After claiming that the MTA’s “hands are tied” earlier this month, transit authority spokesperson Aaron Donovan noted, “Under our existing ad standards as modified by the injunction, the MTA is required to run the ad.”
Now, here’s where it get complicated, especially when considering whether these regulations are blasphemy-related or simply regulations intended to protect the public company.
The MTA approved new guidelines on Thursday and is planning to continue restricting ads that it “reasonably foresees would imminently incite or provoke violence or other immediate breach of the peace,” The New York Times reports. NY1 mirrors this claim, writing, “Sources say the MTA will still ban ads it finds to be incendiary or too dangerous to put up but didn’t say how these decisions will be made.”
In an 8-to-0 vote, the MTA’s board made the startling decision to implement restrictions. New York Magazine has more about the scene before and after the vote:
For the time being, the MTA is still dealing with the fallout from the current campaign. Though the ten ads were instantly defaced, several people showed up to protest when the meeting was opened up to comments from the public. Demonstrators who oppose the ads held signs with messages like “The subway belongs to the 99 percent,” and repeatedly shouted down Pamela Geller, who leads the group behind the ads. She insisted that while many believe that the ad implies Muslims are “savages,” it’s actually about “systemic institutionalized anti-Israel bias.” “This is not against Muslims. I love Muslims,” Geller said.
“We’ve gotten to a point where we needed to take action today,” MTA chairman Joseph J. Lhota proclaimed at a press conference on Thursday. “You deal with a free-speech issue with more free speech.”
A document, reflecting yesterday’s changes, was released 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.”
The document goes on to highlight its restrictions on ads. Among them is the the aforementioned notation that was mentioned by the Times. It proclaims that ads that meet the following description will not be displayed (emphasis added):
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.
TheBlaze reached out to the MTA to find out if this provision was newly-added in light of Geller’s advertisement (after all, less-than-peaceful interactions resulted). A representative initially said that she could not confirm, without doing some research. In a follow-up call, a separate spokesperson confirmed that the violence portion of the langage was added On Thursday (bolded above).
In an e-mail exchange this morning with Geller, the blogger explained that it was not her understanding that some ads would be blocked by the MTA. Speaking specifically about the Times article, she said, “I disagree with that interpretation. The New York Times piece is inaccurate — they have not been following the story at all, so I’m not surprised.”
In an attempt to clarify the MTA’s stance, Geller continued:
“The fact is, the MTA doesn’t mean that it will be enforcing the Sharia or adhering to the blasphemy laws under Islamic law. And if they do, we will certainly fight that. It’s fairly safe to say that the MTA is referring to ads that genuinely incite to violence, such as ads from Occupy Wall Street calling for people to get guns and shoot businessmen and police.
It’s the same as it was before. If they block us, we‘ll sue again.”
Despite this confusion, one provision that is clear, though, is that most ads with a viewpoint (religious, political and moral) will still be permitted, but each will be required to have a disclaimer that tells those viewing the messages that the MTA is not necessarily embracing the views presented within them.
Interestingly, despite the Times and NY1 reports about some ads still being banned (and the violence provision, itself), the MTA is claiming, in light of the Geller case, that it doesn’t have the constitutional right to restrict free speech. In a press release, the government transit authority wrote:
To be clear, the MTA does not believe the First Amendment compels the MTA to open up its ad spaces in this way to a wide range of expressive communications. MTA could, for example, adopt a narrower commercially oriented ad policy, one that limited the range of ads it will display to those selling a product or service, and by doing so, avoid having to run demeaning or divisive ads such as the AFDI ad that resulted in litigation. But the MTA for decades has permitted its ad spaces to serve a broader communicative function than mere commercial advertising, and the Board, today reaffirms that tradition of tolerating a wide spectrum of types of ads, including ads that express views on a wide range of public matters.
With that choice also come First Amendment limitations that constrain the MTA’s ability to disallow particular ads because their messages are uncivil or divisive. We had thought this did not mean having to run divisive ads that demeaned others, but the recent litigation tells us otherwise. A cost of opening our ad space to a variety of viewpoints on matters of public concern is that we cannot readily close that space to certain advertisements on account of their expression of divisive or even venomous messages.
Nowhere in the MTA’s press release are the issues raised by the Times and NY1 mentioned.
The company also took to Twitter on Thursday as well to announce the changes, writing: “We’ve revised our ad guidelines. Ads expressing political, religious or moral views will carry disclaimer: MTA doesn’t endorse this message.”
“This is a paid advertisement sponsored by [Sponsor]. The display of this advertisement does not imply MTA’s endorsement of any views expressed,” the disclaimer that must be placed on political, religious or morality-themed ads will read.
While NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported the MTA’s decision, he also spoke out about free speech, claiming that all sides deserve to have their ads viewed on the subway and other related platforms.
“Sometimes, people put up ads you don’t agree with,” he said. “But if you want to be able to put up yours, you’ve got to let them put up theirs. And on balance, this country seems to have gotten that right.”
While the MTA may not be seeking to ban ads based on religious tolerance and blasphemy, important questions need to be asked about what classifies “violence,” which parties would define such a designation and what the attributes will be.
Update: In an e-mail response to TheBlaze, Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) spokesperson Aaron Donovan commented about the addition of an MTA provision that reserves the right to ban advertisements on the basis that they “would incite or provoke violence.”
When asked for the agency’s reasoning for adding this provision, he said, “Since we hadn’t updated our advertising standards in 15 years, we used this opportunity to address several outstanding issues or potential hypothetical situations. This is one of them.” It is still unclear how much the radical Islam ads placed by blogger Pamela Geller impacted this decision — a question TheBlaze is still waiting for clarification on.
This story has been updated.