SEPTA to accept anti-Muslim ads, but changes will bar future ads

Posted: March 28, 2015

SEPTA will not appeal a federal court ruling that the transit authority must accept virulently anti-Muslim advertising on its buses, SEPTA officials said Thursday.

In accepting the ruling, SEPTA officials also said they have tightened the agency's advertising standards to legally prohibit such ads in the future.

The black-and-white ads proclaim "Jew Hatred: It's in the Quran" and feature a photograph of a 1941 meeting between Hitler and Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian Arab nationalist who made radio broadcasts supporting the Nazis.

The ad will start appearing on the sides of 84 SEPTA buses as early as next week and will be displayed for a month, under terms of a $30,000 contract, SEPTA officials said.

The ad was produced by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit organization, which argued in legal filings that the ad was germane and timely "in light of the fact that many Jews (and Christians) are being persecuted in Islamic countries in the Middle East."

U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg ruled March 11 that because SEPTA had accepted other political and controversial ads on public issues, it could not refuse to accept the Hitler ad.

SEPTA officials said Thursday that will change. New advertising standards have been established to prohibit all political, public-issue, and noncommercial ads, SEPTA general counsel Gino Benedetti said Thursday.

By consistently refusing all such ads, SEPTA officials say, they will satisfy Goldberg's concerns that selective prohibitions violated constitutional free-speech protections.

Local religious leaders gathered Thursday at SEPTA headquarters to lament the ads but to praise SEPTA's unsuccessful opposition.

"It's devastating not just to Muslims but to other people, as well," said Imam Muhammad Abdur-Razzaq Miller, of the mosque of Shaikh M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen in Overbrook. He likened the ads to anti-Jewish propaganda of Hitler and Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany.

Rabbi David Ackerman, of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, called the ads "irresponsible speech that inflames hatred."

The Rev. Judith A. Sullivan, an Episcopalian clergywoman who chairs the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, said the ads were designed to incite hatred and prejudice. "We are proud SEPTA tried so very hard to prevent this," she said.

Robert Muise, an attorney for the American Freedom Defense Initiative, said the group had no immediate plan to try to advertise in Philadelphia again or to sue SEPTA again under its new advertising rules, but he said the group would monitor SEPTA's actions, not just its words.

"SEPTA made the right decision, finally," Muise said. "SEPTA violated the First Amendment."

He predicted that the issue of transit advertising would eventually make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court because of conflicting decisions by federal appeals courts.

SEPTA officials said they were concerned about possible attacks on buses by people angered by the ads, and they said police would arrest people who tried to deface or vandalize buses.

Bus drivers who objected to driving buses with the ads would be "given a level of understanding that would be different than in other situations," Benedetti said, although he stopped short of saying they would be excused from driving the buses.

"We understand that our decision to not file an appeal will be disappointing to those who will be forced to view the disparaging ads," SEPTA board chairman Pasquale T. "Pat" Deon Sr. said.

SEPTA officials said they decided it was unwise to spend the money to pursue an appeal they were likely to lose, especially since the loser in the case would have to pay the legal fees for both sides.


pnussbaum@phillynews.com

215-854-4587

@nussbaumpaul

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