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Controversial ads resurface on Muni, but transit agency says hands are tied

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Agency officials and legal experts note that the messages are constitutionally protected.
  • Agency officials and legal experts note that the messages are constitutionally protected.

City leaders are decrying a controversial set of advertisements that have returned to Muni buses, but agency officials and legal experts say banning the messages would violate free speech rights.

Last August, Muni was criticized for running a series of ads paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an organization considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Those ads used highly charged language, including the term “savages,” to describe Islamic foes of Israel. Muni officials disavowed the campaign and donated the $3,800 in revenue to The City’s Human Rights Commission.

On Monday, a new round of ads paid for by the group returned to Muni buses. This time they display quotes from controversial Islamic figures, including Osama bin Laden, with each message ending with the same phrase: “That’s His Jihad. What’s yours?”

District Attorney George Gascón, joined by several supervisors, held a news conference at City Hall to condemn the new campaign. Representatives from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Jewish Voice for Peace were among those who joined Gascón in voicing opposition to the ads.

Muni has little choice but to run the ads because of First Amendment protections, said professor Evan Lee of UC Hastings College of the Law.

“This does not rise to the level of ’fighting words,’ which are unprotected, because it’s not directed at a particular person,” he said. “If Muni were to refuse the ads because of their offensiveness, I think it would violate the First Amendment because the offensiveness comes from the expression of political views.”

Muni’s ad policy prohibits speech advocating for a local politician or upcoming ballot measure. The agency has determined that any changes could affect First Amendment rights, said spokesman Paul Rose.

Patricia Geller, who founded the American Freedom Defense Initiative, said she threatened litigation against Muni if it refused to run the ads. A policy by the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority to ban similar ads was deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge last July.

Geller said the ads do not say that every Muslim is a terrorist.

“The ad depicts the actual words of actual jihad terrorists and Islamic supremacists regarding jihad,” she said. “The ads obviously do not say that every Muslim believes this way.”

The ads are slated to run on 10 different buses for four weeks, said Rose. Like before, the agency will donate revenue—about $5,000—to the Human Rights Commission. It also will launch its own ad campaign celebrating peace and diversity. Those ads will run inside 100 Muni buses, Rose said.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com