Friday, August 31, 2012

The Battle of the Buses: Another Round for These Freaks and These Soldiers


Okay, I paraphrased that Joni Mitchell lyric.  And why am I suddenly stuck on song lyrics from my youth for blog titles?

A little while ago I wrote about ad wars that have broken out around the country, pitting people opposed to Israeli policies against those who brand all criticism of Israel anti-Semitism.  That propaganda war came home recently in a particularly ugly way.  A professional Islamophobe named Pamela Geller, the driving force behind the campaign to prevent an Islamic cultural center from being built sort of near the World Trade Center, decided to post these ads on buses in New York:

 
For anyone who can’t see it, the ad features a quote from Ayn Rand:  “In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man.”  Under that it says, “Support Israel/Defeat Jihad.”  It’s red, white and blue on a black background.  “Support Israel” is surrounded by Jewish stars (which I personally consider anti-Semitism, but we won’t get into that).

New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority rejected the ads,saying
“they violated its prohibition on ads that demeaned individuals or groups on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin and five other specific categories. The group was given the opportunity to revise the ad, but it refused, and claimed in a lawsuit that the agency’s “no demeaning” language restriction was unconstitutional.
The [federal district court] judge … ruled that the rejected ad was “not only protected speech — it is core political speech,” expressing a “pro-Israel perspective on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict” and implicitly calling “for a pro-Israel U.S. foreign policy with regard to that conflict.”
As such, the judge held, the ad “is afforded the highest level of protection under the First Amendment.”
The day after the judge ruled in favor of Geller’s organization, American Freedom Defense Initiative, they signed a contract with San Francisco’s Municipal Transit Agency, known as Muni, to carry the ads.  Muni says it just wanted to avoid a costly lawsuit, since it seemed like it would lose.

The ads went up, and a furor broke out in San Francisco.  Some people started online petitions.  Others wrote letters to the editor.  Still others didn’t bother waging a campaign to get the ads removed, but set out to modify them with creative graphics.  One such graphic superimposed a hand stamping “Hate Speech” over the text, while another remade the words to say, “In Any War Between the Colonizer and the Colonized, Support the Oppressed.  Support the Palestinian Right of Return.  Defeat Racism.”

courtesy:  Robert Mackey, NYT blog

Geller, who has been branded an extremist hatemonger by the ultra-Zionist Anti-Defamation League, as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center was disinvited from speaking at a Zionist Organization of America event.   Not surprisingly, Geller lashed out at the Zionist establishment, which is a regular pastime.  She has described Abraham Foxman, long-time director of the ADL, as “a Soviet-style, Soviet born leader” and claims that “New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg … has never met an Islamic supremacist he didn’t bow to”.  One prone to conspiracy theories might suspect that Geller is really a shill to make the mainstream Zionist organizations look moderate.

After a week, during which the buses carrying the ads seemed to grow scarcer and scarcer on the street (don’t ask why I know), Muni put up a disclaimer opposite the ten “Savage” ads.  The disclaimer ad reads:
“SFMTA policy prohibits discrimination based on national origin, religion, and other characteristics, and condemns statements that describe any group as "savages."
There's an arrow pointing to the ad it’s criticizing.

The disclaimer begs a lot of questions, including whose idea that ridiculous arrow was.  One friend wondered why they didn’t post it as a “surgeon general’s warning” right on the thing it was criticizing.  Probably they fear that would violate their contract and let them in for a lawsuit.  Personally, my biggest wonder is why it took them a week to put it up.  Did they think no one would notice? Did they feel they needed the pressure to justify the unusual step of putting up a message countering something running on their own buses?  Or did it actually take them a week to figure out what they wanted to say?

Geller is now preparing a new campaign to attack Muni for its rebuff:  “Why Is the City of San Francisco Enforcing Sharia Law?” the headline asks.  Seriously; here's the photo.  

She’s also put up different anti-Islam ads in Westchester, NY train stations and is getting ready to launch the “Defeat Jihad” ones in New York, now that she’s won her case.

Meanwhile, a group of wealthy donors kicked in to run a counter ad on 50 Muni buses, borrowing Geller’s color scheme to promote the message, “Stop 30 Billion/Spend Our Money at Home Not on the Israeli Military”.  Rumor has it the price tag was $20,000.

Now I’ve agonized over the question of whether Geller’s ad really is protected free speech.  With due respect to the First Amendment, in which I’m really a big believer, I just don’t see it.  First of all, this is not a free speech zone.  As I just said, it costs thousands of dollars.  So it’s already being heavily regulated and made available only to some people.  Why is ability to pay an okay limiter of free speech, but willingness to stay within certain parameters of civility is not?  I would not support a policy that you can’t take an ad promoting Israel, or Bahrain or Russia (where a court has just upheld the ban on gay pride events), though I wish people would not do so.  But a policy that says you can’t call people “savages” doesn’t seem overly limiting to me.

Second, there’s a big difference between criminalizing speech and regulating it.  If Geller wants to stand in a park and hold up a poster with her hateful slogans on it, she should and does have that right.  (Though it seems to me I’ve seen footage recently of people being teargassed and arrested for trying to hold signs in public parks all over the country … wasn’t it something about 99%?)  But policies regulating what you can buy ad space for seem okay to me.  Cities regulate all kinds of things with permits, and the courts generally uphold them.  Why is transit advertising so sacrosanct?

Some people say, well, but if they can refuse her ad, they’ll refuse ours.  A friend in Seattle has been involved in some similar battles up there.  A couple years ago, Seattle Mideast Awareness Committee planned to run ads on buses saying, “Israeli War Crimes–Your Tax Dollars At Work.”  The bus company initially accepted, but backed down in response to pressure from the Anti-Defamation League and other Zionist organizations – the same ones Pam Geller calls apologists for promoters of Sharia law.  After that affair, the King county bus company revised its advertising policies to state explicitly that the goals of advertising on its buses are “Maximizing advertising revenue; maximizing ridership; maintaining a position of neutrality on controversial issues; preserving the marketability of advertising space by avoiding [potentially objectionable] content”.   Hence, according to my friend, they are only accepting ads that are selling something.  My friend, and others, see this as a loss, leading to “a lack of political spice in bus ads and a less robust political discourse”. 

I don’t agree.  I, and many people I have been privileged to work with, are pretty good at getting our messages in well-traveled venues, and we don’t need to give $20,000 of hard-earned money to the government in order to do it.  I signed the petition to Muni, of course – how could you not, but I am more drawn to the DIY (or in this case SIY - Say It Yourself) approach of subverting the Geller ads.  It’s hard for me to get outraged over the government doing the wrong thing; when it does the right thing, it’s usually for the wrong reasons.


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