SEPTA's efforts to block city bus ads proclaiming "Jew Hatred: It's in the Quran" violates free speech protections and should be halted, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
In a case that grappled with basic First Amendment issues over disparaging advertising, U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg found that SEPTA had inconsistently run public-issue ads from other organizations, and cleared the way for a private group's ad that seeks to end U.S. aid to Islamic countries.
"It is clear that the anti-disparagement standard promulgated by SEPTA was a principled attempt to limit hurtful, disparaging advertisements," Goldberg wrote. "While certainly laudable, such aspirations do not, unfortunately cure First Amendment violations."
Jerri Williams, a SEPTA spokeswoman, said Thursday that the transit system is disappointed but respects the court's decision." We're currently evaluating our options including whether or not to file an appeal," she said.
The ad in question features a photograph of a 1941 meeting between Adolf Hitler and Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian Arab nationalist who made radio broadcasts supporting the Nazis, under the provocative headline.
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It was produced by American Freedom Defense Initiative, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit, 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."
The organization has fought and won similar free-speech legal fights over its ads on transit systems in New York, Boston and Seattle.
SEPTA rejected the ad after it was submitted in May, saying it failed to conform to the transit authority's prohibition on advertising that "disparages" any person or group "on the basis of race, religious belief, age, sex, alienage, national origin, sickness or disability."
The transit system argued that plastering the ad across city buses and trains could encourage harm or incivility to Muslim employees or among its one million daily customers.
SEPTA acknowledged at a hearing before Goldberg in December that it only closely scrutinizes advertising when the company it contracts to sell ads has questions about whether they might comply with those standards.
In his opinion Wednesday, Goldberg cited past public issue advertisements run by SEPTA on topics such as animal cruelty, teacher seniority, contraception, religion and fracking that also had a potential to offend.