Anti-Islamist group sues MBTA over banned ads

An anti-Islamist advocacy group is suing the MBTA after the transit agency rejected a proposed subway advertisement on the grounds that it was “demeaning or disparaging.”

The ad, funded by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a New York-based organization that seeks to combat a purported spread of Islamism in the United States, reads: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel; defeat Jihad.”

MBTA officials rejected the ad Monday on the basis that it violated their advertising guidelines, and today said they would be willing to change their stance if the activist group modifies the ad.

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But lawyers for the organization say they have received no overtures from the MBTA, and wouldn’t be willing to change the advertisement anyway.

The clash over the proposed subway poster comes on the heels of another controversial ad centered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that prompted scrutiny from the MBTA. That advertisement, which first appeared on the T last month, depicts four maps that purport to show “the Palestinian loss of land” to Israel between 1946 and 2010. Text alongside the maps says: “4.7 million Palestinians are Classified by the UN as Refugees.” It was originally removed from the subway system when the T received a handful of complaints, but transportation officials later backpedaled on that decision, citing “a breakdown in our established procedures for handling complaints about specific ads.”

In response, the American Freedom Defense Initiative sought to put up 10 of their own ads in the same stations where the purportedly anti-Israel posters had appeared.

In a complaint filed Wednesday in US District Court, lawyers on behalf of the American Freedom Defense Initiative argued that the T applied its standards of appropriate advertising unequally betwen the two different ad campaigns.

In rejecting the American Freedom Defense Initiative’s advertisment, which riffs on statements made by the author Ayn Rand, the MBTA sought to censor the organization’s views, the complaint stated.

In contrast, the complaint continued, the decision to return last month’s purportedly anti-Israel advertisements to T stations “was motivated by a discriminatory animus against those speakers who support Israel in this conflict.”

Joe Pesaturo, spokesman for the MBTA, said T officials had reached out to the organization, asking them modify the advertisement to bring it into compliance with the T’s advertising guidelines.

“The MBTA is not opposed to groups expressing their points-of-view, but it must be done in a respectful manner that recognizes and appreciates the cultural diversity of a public transit environment,” Pesaturo said.

The T’s advertising guidelines prohibit posters that contain “material that demeans or disparages an individual or group of individuals.” They go on to say that an advertisement should be denied if it “contains material that ridicules or mocks, is abusive or hostile to, or debases the dignity or stature of, an individual or group of individuals.”

But Robert J. Muise, an attorney with the American Freedom Law Center, a public interest law firm representing the group, said the organization had not heard from T officials about modifying the ad, and have informed the T that they refuse to tweak the ad.

“Our clients have no interest whatsoever in changing the advertisement because there is no constitutional basis for the government to make such a demand,” Muise said.

The same advertisement ran on New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority system last year, after it sparked a heated court battle that was ultimately lost by the transit agency.