Posted by Joan Hanna on August 28, 2015 in Blog

The longtime saga of Pamela Geller and her organization, The American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), to challenge the boundaries of First Amendment rights continues. On August 12th, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied AFDI the right to post advertisements on Seattle buses that falsely claimed an exaggerated FBI reward for wanted terrorists. David Yerushalmi, the group’s attorney, promised to take this matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is not the first time that AFDI has clashed with the court system.

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AFDI’s mission is to counter, in Geller’s and cofounder Robert Spencer’s view, the encroachment of jihad and Islam in the United States. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, AFDI is considered an anti-Muslim hate group. Since 2010, AFDI has “[gone] on the offensive” and purchased numerous spaces on public transit systems to advertise and further their anti-Muslim hate speech. Nationwide, Geller has put up – or attempted to put up – these advertisements, which disparage Arab Americans, American Muslims, as well as international Arabs and Muslims. One such campaign, that ran in New York City and Washington, D.C., implied that those whom did not support Israel were “savage[s].” Another ad that received national attention read: “Islamic Jew-hatred: It's in the Quran. Two-thirds of all US aid goes to Islamic countries. Stop racism. End all aid to Islamic countries.” AFDI has won the right through the court system to display these types of ads in public transit systems in New York City, Washington, D.C. (however, in May, METRO temporarily banned issue ads until the end of the year) and Philadelphia.

The risk of being sued has typically discouraged transit systems from taking down offensive ads. In 2010, complaints from the American Muslim community in Florida prompted the Miami-Dade Transit system to pull AFDI’s campaign off their buses. They eventually buckled under the threat of a lawsuit from AFDI. Influenced by the New York City and Washington, D.C. court rulings in favor of AFDI’s right to run their hateful ads, Chicago’s transit system ran AFDI’s ads to avoid a lawsuit in 2012. Shortly after, San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency concluded that while they found the ads racist and Islamophobic, the speech was protected under the First Amendment as well. Meanwhile in the Midwest, there is a pending case with Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), the transit operator for metro Detroit, and AFDI involving a 2010 advertisement that read “Fatwa on your head? Is your family or community threatening you? Leaving Islam? Got questions? Get Answers!”

Besides the impending appeal from AFDI regarding the case in Seattle, just last month an appellate court decided in favor of Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to refuse to run one of their ads, asserting that it was denigrating. In response, AFDI vowed to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. The campaign in question was permitted to run in New York City and Washington, D.C., and stated, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel; defeat Jihad.” The Seattle case and the Boston case differ in that the Seattle ad came down to a matter of falsifying information by incorrectly stating a fact regarding the FBI’s reward offer. In Boston, the AFDI case tests the lines between the First Amendment right to free speech and the rights of public transportation companies. Now, the question is: will the Supreme Court agree or disagree with the Seattle and Boston cases that will be presented before them? Either way, their decision to take on these cases could mark a potential turning point in the Chronicles of Pam Geller and Company.