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Free speech isn't free

SEPTA tried to ban politically incorrect posters. Court finds hurt feelings are the price we must sometimes pay.

SEPTA can’t refuse this ad since it has accepted other advocacy advertising, according to the U.S. District Court’s ruling.
SEPTA can’t refuse this ad since it has accepted other advocacy advertising, according to the U.S. District Court’s ruling.Read more

SEPTA DID what it felt it had to do, pointlessly, and wound up in federal court after banning posters deemed to be anti-Islamic.

I say pointlessly because the same ban had been tried and defeated in Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco.

The U.S. District Court here ruled Wednesday that since SEPTA has accepted other advocacy advertising, it can't refuse ads that call for ending U.S. aid to Islamic countries and that portray an Islamic leader as an ally of Adolf Hitler.

SEPTA general counsel Gino Benedetti said SEPTA rejected the Hitler ad because it "disparaged Muslims because it portrayed them in a way that I believe was untrue and incorrect and false," adding the ad "put every single Muslim in the same category as being a Jew hater."

I'll get to the specific ad in a moment, but that's a huge stretch by Benedetti, like saying attacking Boko Haram is an attack on all Muslims.

The posters (and other ads) are commissioned by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, co-founded by Pamela Geller. Both are accused of being "Islamophobic," which is a convenient way of trying to shut down those who disagree with you.

Those attacking Geller and AFDI include the Council on American-Islamic Relations, other Islamic groups and the leftist Southern Poverty Law Center, which I have supported over the years, even while not agreeing with all it says and does.

I also don't agree with everything Geller says. She's too often a bomb thrower whose careless words allow her critics to paint her with the anti-Muslim brush.

"This is part of the Islamic supremacist narrative," she told me. "I oppose an ideology that calls for the annihilation of the nonbeliever."

AFDI answers CAIR with a poster that says: "Hamas Is ISIS. Hamas Is Al-Qaeda. Hamas Is Boko Haram. Hamas Is CAIR in America. Jihad is Jihad."

For the sake of argument, let's say AFDI is Islamophobic. Let's say it hates all Muslims. I don't believe that, but let's accept it as a hypothetical.

Let's say they want to attack, criticize, disparage and ridicule Islam.

Those are precisely the opinions the First Amendment are designed to protect - bad speech, ugly speech, unpopular speech. (The First Amendment does not protect direct calls for violence.)

Judge Mitchell Goldberg ruled the ad content "squarely involves political expression and reflects plaintiffs' interpretation of a religious text, both of which are protected speech."

The ad SEPTA rejected shows a photograph of Adolf Hitler "with his staunch ally, the leader of the Muslim world, Haj Amin al-Husseini."

The ad is wrong in that there is no "leader of the Muslim world," but al-Husseini was the Grand Mufti, or leader, of Jerusalem from 1921 until 1937 when he fled to avoid arrest for his part of a revolt against the British. He then cozied up to Hitler and made propaganda broadcasts for Nazi Germany.

That is fact. You can't deny it any more than you can deny Palestinians danced in the streets and passed out candy on 9/11. Not all Palestinians, but some.

The right-hand side of the ad says "Islamic Jew hatred" is "in the Quran" and it is, along with Christian hatred. But other verses are tolerant. The ad goes wrong by focusing on the Quran rather than on Islamic extremists, as some of the other ads do.

Free expression is one of the bedrocks of democracy and it can cause emotional pain.

Here, where we have that freedom, those who disagree with AFDI and Geller are free to run their own ads.

I'd be surprised if they don't.

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky