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Joseph Ward III Headshot

Wouldn't You Deface A Racist Ad?

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If you haven't seen this video, take a look at Mona Eltahawy spray hot pink graffiti over a racist subway ad in New York City. Mona is an Egyptian-American journalist with a long and steady record defending the dignity of women, Muslims and countless others. Earlier this year, her feature article in Foreign Policy magazine, Why Do They Hate Us? ignited a global conversation about the treatment (and mistreatment) of women across the Muslim world.

Watching this video evoked a couple of things for me. The first being a gut-wrench reaction towards the apparent racism (which Mona thankfully attempted to bury in graffiti). These subway ads, paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) insinuate that Muslim and Arab people are savages--a message that's beyond offensive and disgusting.

But the second, and more important reaction is how "anti-other" hate can overlap with free speech.

I learned about this video during a recent trip to Seattle, where I've spent the past few days working with Christian and secular advocates in the Washington United for Marriage campaign. We are working to Approve Referendum 74, which ensures lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have the right to marry. Like many Muslims in America, LGBT people are so often exposed to the same type of prejudice and homophobia that's exasperated by the actions of religious extremist. I think about the Westboro Baptist Church in particular who have mastered this type of "hate free speech." They picket funerals with neon signs that read "God Hates Fags." Any family or friend of an American veteran or LGBT person whose funeral has been picketed by this group, knows the horror they can inflict.

I could imagine walking through the subways of New York City seeing these racist ads, and Mona's actions seem to strike at the very real and raw reaction we should all have towards hate. If "God Hates Fags" were on those same subway ads, wouldn't LGBT and straight allies be provoked to deface or glitter bomb those? What about ads degrading women or inciting racism towards black Americans?

In response to the controversy, the Metropolitan Transit Authority just ruled to prohibit advertisements that it "reasonably foresees would imminently incite or provoke violence or other immediate breach of the peace." And, California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law a similar protection for Californians against the Westboro provocations.

When you see homophobia, sexism, or racism promoted through a vehicle of free speech, how would you respond?

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