PHILADELPHIA - A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority violated the First
Amendment rights of an organization which sought to post anti-Islam advertisements featuring images of Adolf Hitler on transit property.
According to Judge Mitchell Goldberg's memo accompanying his decision to impose an injunction against SEPTA's denial, the transit authority's invocation of its anti-disparagement policy to deny placement of the ad was based on the American Freedom Defense Initiative's viewpoint, and not the content of the ads.
"It is clear that the anti-disparagement standard promulgated by SEPTA was a principled attempt to limit hurtful, disparaging advertisements," Goldberg writes. "While certainly laudable, such aspirations do not, unfortunately, cure First Amendment violations."
The New Hampshire-based nonprofit organization originally argued that officials from SEPTA unlawfully refused to post advertisements on transit vehicles and other region-wide property that sought to spread a controversial call for the end of U.S. aid to Islamic countries.
Pamela Geller, the president of American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), and the group’s vice president Robert Spencer, said that SEPTA is a government entity and has an obligation to respect their organization’s First Amendment right to free speech. They claim that Joseph Casey, general manager of SEPTA, arbitrarily rejected the advertisement because he disagreed with the message, and not because it violated their standards of use.
According to the complaint, SEPTA and its advertising management agency, Titan, have accepted all forms of politically and religious motivated advertisements in the past, including a campaign for a Christian radio program and ads for a push to end teacher seniority preferences in the public school program.
On May 27, AFDI submitted an advertisement that read, “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s in the Quran. Two Thirds of All US Aid Goes to Islamic Countries. Stop the Hate. End All Aid to Islamic Countries.”
On June 3, SEPTA’s Chief Commercial Officer told the plaintiffs that the advertisement had been rejected, saying that SEPTA’s standards prohibited, “Advertising that tends to disparage or ridicule any person or group of persons on the basis of race, religious belief, age, sex, alienage, national origin, sickness or disability.”
After reviewing SEPTA’s policies, the plaintiffs claimed that their ad met the same standards achieved by past politically charged campaigns and that the rejection constitutes censorship by SEPTA officials who disagree with AFDI’s message. The denial was motivated by animosity toward the plaintiffs and their views on Islam, the suit claims.
“[SEPTA's] speech restriction offends the First Amendment by granting a public official unbridled discretion such that the official’s decision to limit speech is not constrained by objective criteria, but may rest on ambiguous and subjective reason,” the complaint says.
AFDI, Geller and Spencer are represented by Jason Gosselin of Drinker Biddle & Reath in Philadelphia.
The federal case ID is 2:14-cv-05335-AB.