Pro-Israel Muni Ads Spark Controversy (VIDEO) (UPDATE)
An ad recently placed on a number of city buses in San Francisco has been raising a lot of eyebrows around town. The ad reads, "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad."
The ads are part of a four-week media campaign purchased by the American Freedom Defense Initiative--a conservative, pro-Israel group.
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"The reason I wanted to run these ads was to counter the anti-Israel ads that were running in various cities across the country in New York, in D.C., on San Francisco BART," AFDI co-founder Pamela Gellar told CBS San Francisco. "If I had my way, they'd be in every city in the United States of America and if I can get the funding, that's exactly what's going to happen."
The BART ads to which Geller referred were placed by the Northern California Friends of Sabeel and the Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and ran from late 2010 to early 2012. They directed people to a website pushing for the cessation of U.S. military support for Israel.
Geller, who also runs the popular conservative blog Atlas Shrugs, came to national prominence as one of the leading voices on the right fighting against the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque"--an Islamic cultural center slated to move into a location in lower Manhattan--that became a hot-button issue in the months leading up to the 2010 mid-term elections.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has rules against hosting ads that are overtly political or "clearly defamatory." While the prohibition on political issues is limited in scope to issues due to be decided by voters in San Francisco, the defamation aspect is a little more dicey.
However, SFMTA's hands were largely tied in choosing whether accept the ad due to a ruling handed down by a federal judge in New York this July. Last year, AFDI attempted to get the same ad placed on buses in New York City. The transit agency there refused, citing its prohibition on "demeaning" ads. The group sued on First Amendment grounds and came out victorious earlier this summer.
The judge, Paul A. Engelmayer of Federal District Court, ruled that the rejected ad was "not only protected speech--it is core political speech," expressing a "pro-Israel perspective on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict" and implicitly calling "for a pro-Israel U.S. foreign policy with regard to that conflict."
As such, the judge held, the ad "is afforded the highest level of protection under the First Amendment."
Muni approved AFDI's ad on the same day the judge issued his ruling regarding New York's transit system and it seems unlikely that SFMTA, currently facing a $17 million budget hole this year alone, would reject the ad and surely face an expensive, uphill legal battle.
Muni does have a history of running controversial ads. Late last year, after an ad attempting to humanize sex workers was rejected by two outdoor display ad companies as too risque for their billboards, the campaign ultimately found a home on 50 Muni buses.
Update: SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose told the Huffington Post that the New York ruling was only one factor amongst many in the agency's decision to accept the ad. "We understand how many people may find this ad offensive, but we're limited in what we can do."
Rose said SFMTA is reviewing its options in whether or not it will keep the ad for the entire run.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco has released a statement condemning the ads and calling on Muni to remove them. "The Bay Area’s organized Jewish community takes great offense to the ad’s inflammatory and anti-Muslim language. We are steadfast in our support of Israel and our concern about the growing threat of Islamic radicalism, and steadfast in our opposition to anti-Muslim stereotypes," the organization said in a statement. "We have long been concerned that the repeated appearance of offensive anti-Israel ads would turn our local public transit system into a battleground for the Israeli-Arab conflict; we are no less concerned by offensive anti-Muslim ads. We urge all transit authorities to reassess their policies and to construct advertising policies consistent with laws governing protected speech that preserve public transit as a safe space for all passengers."
Correction: The story originally identified the organization that placed the BART ads as the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation and the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco as the source of the updated statement.
Watch CBS's coverage of the controversial Muni ads in the video below: