A recent federal court ruling handed down by District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg is requiring SEPTA to run a controversial anti-Muslim ad featuring Hitler on 84 of its buses.
The ad, which was paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, is composed of a black-and-white photo of Hitler with Palestinian nationalist Haj Amin al-Husseini, who showed support for the Nazis over radio broadcast during World War II. The first line of the ad reads, “Islamic Jew-hatred: It’s in the Quran.”
Through this statement the ad seemingly promotes the fabricated notion that the Islamic faith is not religiously tolerant of Jewish people. The remainder of the ad calls for the U.S. to end all foreign aid to Islamic countries.
Though many Philadelphians, including SEPTA officials, are upset by this hateful ad, and rightfully so, the truth is that the ad is protected by the First Amendment. SEPTA has opened up its buses to serve as a public forum by allowing for other political and non-commercial ads to be run.
As a result, SEPTA has now banned all political and non-commercial ads from its advertising space for the future, but prior ads have dealt with controversial subjects, such as animal cruelty, contraception and fracking.
For SEPTA to discriminate against the AFDI’s ad based on its inflammatory nature would be to limit the AFDI’s freedom of speech based on content.
Despite this current ad being controversial, as well as disparaging to Muslims and unrepresentative of Islam as a faith, the ad is protected by the Constitution.
Speech cannot be limited just because it is offensive. For example, burning the American flag is a form of protected speech, as decided by the Supreme Court ruling in Texas v. Johnson in 1989. No matter how innately wrong or unpatriotic the desecration of the flag may seem to Americans, it is protected.
Burton Caine, J.D., a professor at Temple’s Beasley School of Law, believes that all speech is free speech. He called the language of the First Amendment being pretty straightforward in this regard.
“The First Amendment provides that government ‘shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,’” he said.
Caine has long argued that categories of speech, such as fighting words should not be allowed as exceptions to the First Amendment.
Though Caine agrees with Goldberg’s ruling that forces SEPTA to run the ad, he admits to disliking the ad itself, and I agree with his mode of thinking. This ad holds up under legal scrutiny, though many of us in the City of Brotherly Love do not love its message.
The only way for other citizens, who, like myself, dislike the ad, to combat its hateful message is to exercise the same expression granted to the AFDI in the First Amendment. We must simply speak up – in fact, it is imperative that we do so.
The Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia has already begun to speak up through its launch of the #DareToUnderstand campaign against the message of the AFDI’s ad. The alliance of community leaders behind the campaign are looking to promote interfaith unity and understanding.
According to the campaign’s website, daretounderstand.causevox.com, the hashtag #DareToUnderstand calls for supporters “To take a stand in the face of divisive rhetoric … To embrace our diverse voices … To unite to effect positive change. To stand in solidarity with those who might otherwise be alienated.”
By standing together, despite our differing beliefs we can oppose hate and promote understanding.
On Main Campus, Tykee James, president of the Student Interfaith and Multicultural Society, is planning to work with Jalen Blot, director of Campus Life and Diversity, to make students aware of the AFDI’s ad and how they can respond to it peacefully.
“The only vaccine [for] this plague of societal misinformation and negativity is really education,” said James, a junior mathematics and computer science with teaching major.
Unfortunately, those people who are uneducated or misinformed about what Islam preaches are the very people who are most susceptible to believing the lies promoted in this ad. Hopefully, people who may not know much about Islam can sense that there is something wrong with the message conveyed in this ad and are able to seek out education for themselves.
Temple’s Muslim Students Association said in a statement that they hope the ads spark discussions among those unfamiliar with the religion, and discouraged students from vandalizing the ads.
“We must work together with the leaders of the communities involved in order to create an environment of understanding,” the statement read. “We would urge people not to [vandalize] because it is important to be respectful of other people’s opinions and that is what our religion teaches.”
I agree with the MSA’s statement and I urge my fellow Philadelphians and Temple students to respond with intelligence and goodwill when confronted with the display of bias that is conveyed by AFDI’s ad.
Jenny Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.