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An offensive ad's right to offend

Published September 29, 2012 1:01 am
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The following editorial appeared in Tuesday's Washington Post:

Nothing in the ad that the American Freedom Defense Initiative wants to place on local buses and trains in the Washington area violates Metro's scant guidelines on advertising, which ban false or misleading ads and not much else. The group's ad reads, "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad."

That message may be seen as inflammatory, obnoxious or hateful but, as a federal judge noted in July in ordering New York's subway system to accept the ad, it is protected speech under the First Amendment.

So it is unlikely that Metro's decision to "defer" placing the ad on buses and trains will survive a lawsuit brought by the sponsoring group. Nor does Metro's stated rationale that it wanted to wait "out of concern for public safety, given current world events" seem likely to hold much water in a constitutional debate.

Like other incendiary advertising, and like the vile YouTube video that has sparked protests in the Muslim world, the ad degrades public debate and civic life. It could be read as labeling all of Israel's adversaries as "savages," vilifying them under the label of "jihad." It is a fact that Israel's detractors include plenty of people who are every bit as "civilized" as Israelis.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative is considered a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Its founder, Pamela Geller, a conservative blogger and provocateur, has been the driving force behind other like campaigns, including one two years ago to halt the building of a mosque in Lower Manhattan near the Sept. 11 memorial.

But the bottom line is that censorship is even more distasteful than the ad. And it's plainly unjustified to reject it based on Metro's interpretation of geopolitical events.




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