by Richard Edmondson
Sunday, August 5th, 2012
This time the location is Ann Arbor, Michigan.
And this time the billboard opposes Israel.
I have been reporting regularly about the ongoing “billboard wars” in America over the Palestine-Israeli conflict, and the right to promote one’s position on the matter by taking out billboard advertisements. (see here, here, here, and here ). The latest episode in the saga seems to be playing out in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where a lawsuit has been filed challenging the local transit agency’s refusal to accept ads containing skull and bones imagery and calling for a boycott of Israel. This AP report was posted today at Dearborn Boycotts Israel:
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) – An Ann Arbor bus agency is vigorously defending itself in a lawsuit related to the rejection of a provocative ad on its vehicles.
Blaine Coleman’s ad would have skulls and bones and say, ‘Boycott Israel. Boycott Apartheid.’ He believes the Israeli government treats Palestinians unfairly.
Coleman wants the ad on buses that travel near the University of Michigan, but the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority rejected it. In a court filing this week, the agency says it turns down ads that ridicule a group of people. Bus officials say Coleman’s ad would make people uncomfortable and have a ‘negative impact’ on ridership.
Federal Judge Mark Goldsmith appears close to making a decision on an injunction sought by Coleman’s lawyers. They say his free-speech rights are being violated.
The same story has also been carried by an ABC affiliate in Toledo, Ohio.
The really fascinating question that a lot of people are now going to be watching is: will the ruling by this judge, in this court, be consistent with the July 20 ruling by another federal judge in an almost identical case brought in New York?
In a post just over a week ago I discussed a lawsuit filed by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, which in September of last year attempted to place ads on the sides of New York City busses, only to have them turned down by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA has a policy prohibiting “images or information that demean an individual or group of individuals on account of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation.” The ad would have read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
As I say, the New York case and the Ann Arbor case are practically identical, both involving billboards, with both billboards featuring messages addressing the Palestine-Israel conflict. In fact, the only significant difference in the two cases would seem to be that in the New York case the billboard is pro-Israel, while in Ann Arbor the sentiment expressed is against Israel.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative, or AFDI, is headed by Pamela Geller, of the Atlas Shrugged blog, a Jewish writer who has been outspoken in her opposition to the “Islamization of America.” Geller has called Islam a “genocidal ideology,” and has warned of the dangers of Sharia law coming to America—however, significantly, it was not a Muslim judge who presided over her case. In deciding the lawsuit in her favor, U.S. District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer ruled that the side of a public transportation vehicle is a “public forum” where free speech must be allowed to take place:
As a threshold matter, the Court notes that the AFDI Ad is not only protected speech—it is core political speech. The Ad expresses AFDI’s pro-Israel perspective on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, and implicitly calls for a pro-Israel U.S. foreign policy with regard to that conflict. The AFDI Ad is, further, a form of response to political ads on the same subject that have appeared in the same space. As such, the AFDI Ad is afforded the highest level of protection under the First Amendment.
The decision means the MTA will be forced to accept the AFDI’s ad, which begs the question: Would Engelmayer, or any other judge in America for that matter, have issued a ruling requiring a transit authority to accept ads depicting Jews as “savages”? And will Goldsmith now take a position similar to Engelmayer’s with regard to the anti-Israel “skull and bones” ads in Ann Arbor? Inquiring minds want to know. As the AP story notes, a ruling in the matter “appears close.”