Islamic Ironies Surround NYC Transit Ad-Wars

     MANHATTAN (CN) – In a paradoxical free-speech battle, the film company behind the spoof “The Muslims Are Coming!” filed a federal lawsuit opposing a political advertising ban meant to suppress a campaign by their nemesis.
     The suppressed ads at issue had been meant to promote a film co-directed by Palestinian-American comedian Dean Obeidallah satirizing Islamophobic sentiment in the vein of the 1930s cult classic “Reefer Madness.”
     One poster warns in bold print of “The Ugly Truth About Muslims,” before adding in a smaller font that “Muslims have great frittata recipes.”
     Another notes that Muslims “invented coffee, the toothbrush and algebra,” above a tongue-in-cheek apology for saddling students with a year of math class.
     In its June 25 lawsuit against the MTA, producer Vaguely Qualified Productions describes the ads as a response to “campaign of hateful, anti-Muslim ads in the New York City bus and subway system” by the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
     AFDI has sparred in federal court against cities across the United States to run ads that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio among other opponents call “inflammatory.”
     Three years after the group forced the city to run ads depicting the Mideast conflict as a dispute between the “civilized” Israel and the “savage” Palestinians, AFDI continues to fight for another advertisement equating the Islamic tenet of jihad with one Hamas militant’s view of it.
     “Killing Jews is a worship that draws us closer to Allah,” its latest ad declares.
     After a federal judge ruled that this message qualified as protected speech in late April, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority revised its policy to bar any commentary “regarding disputed economic, political, moral, religious or social issues or related matters.”
     At the time of the May 6 revision, “The Muslims Are Coming!” campaign had already been in the works for five months.
     Producers say the new policy jettisoned their campaign along with AFDI’s.
     The MTA’s advertising director Jeffrey Rosen found that both ads “prominently or predominantly” advocate a political message.
     In a phone interview, attorney Glenn Katon of the Oakland-based group Muslim Advocates called his client’s ads “entirely different from the hate-group ads that have caused so much controversy.”
     Dissecting the language of the MTA’s policy, Katon remarked that jokes about the humanity of Muslims and their frittata recipes are not “disputed” topics.
     “To call that a disputed political issue is really nonsensical,” he said. “You can’t argue with comedy. You can’t dispute it.”
     Katon declined to comment on the overall First Amendment wisdom of the MTA’s political ad ban, except to say that its language did not cover his client.
     Meanwhile, AFDI’s lawyer David Yerushalmi wished the filmmakers satirizing his client the best of luck.
     “We hope they prevail because then we will as well,” he said.
     That did not stop the lawyer from taking a few digs at the filmmaker’s lawsuit, which he said made “some pretty silly arguments” and left “the most legally compelling arguments off the table.”
     “I can only assume / hope that they raise their legal game as time goes on,” Yerushalmi added.
     AFDI’s appeal of the MTA’s policy change on First Amendment grounds is pending before the Second Circuit, the lawyer noted.
     “And, if we are successful, [the filmmakers] will be able to run their ad, as well they should,” Yerushalmi said.
     Earlier this week, Mayor de Blasio’s spokeswoman Monica Klein responded to AFDI’s appeal by reiterating City Hall’s view that “these anti-Islamic ads are outrageous, inflammatory and wrong, and have no place in New York City, or anywhere.”
     City Hall did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the MTA’s rejection of the filmmaker’s campaign, or its possible reverberations in the persistent free-speech battles circling New York City’s buses and subways.

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