Conservative activist Pamela Geller says the first amendment protects her right to run anti-Islam advertisements on Detroit buses. The local transit authority disagrees. Cue a year-long battle over free speech, with the ball now (temporarily) back in the hands of the bus company.
The saga of the bus banner ads began last May when Geller’s group, American Freedom Defense Initiative, submitted a request to the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) in Detroit to run a banner ad on their vehicles offering support for Muslims seeking to leave Islam.
The banner ad reads: “Fatwa on your head? Is your family or community threatening you? Leaving Islam? Got questions? Get answers! RefugeFromIslam.com.” Visitors to the website are told not to tell friends or family about their plans to leave the faith and suggests they may be killed. “If you are thinking of leaving Islam, be wary, be careful,” it reads. “The Qur’an commands your death for leaving Islam… and Muhammad is explicit in a hadith: “If anyone changes his religion, kill him.”
While Geller has described the ads as a resource for Muslims, opponents criticize them as a little more than a vehicle for depicting Islam as a violent religion. The ads faced similar controversy when introduced to New York City and Miami.
SMART rejected Geller’s request on grounds that the bus company bars advertisements that are political in nature, or that are “likely to hold up to scorn or ridicule any person or group of persons.”
In response, Geller associate David Yerushalmi and the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC) filed a lawsuit against SMART on behalf of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, seeking to reverse the bus authority’s refusal to display the ads.
Late last month, in a blow to SMART, U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and ordered that SMART must carry the anti-Islam ads on their buses. Hood ruled that “there is a strong likelihood that Plaintiffs could succeed in demonstrating that Defendant’s decision not to run the advertisement was not reasonable, but rather arbitrary and capricious.”
Complicating the case, in March of 2010, SMART allowed billboard ads for an atheist organization, which read: “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.”
SMART alleged the difference between the atheist ad and Geller’s is that one is political, the other religious. But Hood criticized their ability to make those assessments, writing that while SMART asserts that their content policy is viewpoint neutral, it doesn’t delineate what “renders an advertisement as “purely religious,” as opposed to political or likely to hold up to scorn or ridicule any person or groups of persons, both of which are prohibited by Defendant SMART’s content restriction policy.”
Geller immediately resubmitted a request for the ads to run on the buses. On her website, she heralded the victory, writing that the injunction is a “huge win, not just for us, but for the First Amendment.” “This is a direct refutation to all those who claim I am a hater or that my lawyers are ‘haters’ for representing me,” she wrote.
But on Monday, the transit authority filed a notice of appeal, seeking a stay so that they may appeal. In a statement, SMART General Manager John Hertel said that customers who ride their buses should not have to be confronted with political messaging. “SMART service helps people in their daily lives by getting them to work, school and medical appointments,” he said, according to Crain’s Detroit Business. “We don’t think people who ride SMART and go about their daily life should be confronted with any political advertising at any time. Our primary purpose is to provide bus service, commercial advertising is incidental to that.”
Geller took to her website to attack the appeal.
“Despite the fact that we won and free speech prevailed, Detroit Transit is appealing the ruling. Your taxpayer dollars are being used to enforce the sharia. Ghastly.”
A hearing for the request to stay will be heard May 12.