MANHATTAN (CN) – Blocking mass-transit censorship, a federal judge found nothing “political” about subway and bus advertisements that spoof Islamophobia to promote the film “The Muslims Are Coming.”
“The text of the messages that would be posted in the subways is not ‘prominently or predominantly political’ – unless we have reached the unhappy moment in this country where the mere mention of one of the three Abrahamic faiths is ‘prominently or predominantly political’ simply because that faith is Islam,” the scathing opinion filed Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon states.
Prominent Palestinian-American comedian Dean Obeidallah co-directed the documentary, which follows Muslim comics confronting fear of their ethnic backgrounds at locations across the United States.
The film company Vaguely Qualified Productions LLC tried to promote the film’s release two years ago through an ad campaign designed in the vein of the 1930s cult classic “Reefer Madness.”
The producer described the ads as a send-up of the “campaign of hateful, anti-Muslim ads in the New York City bus and subway system” by the American Freedom Defense Initiative and its leader Pamela Geller.
AFDI and Geller have been a longtime thorn in the side of transportation bureaucrats across the country for their public transportation ads demonizing Muslims in general, and Palestinians in particular.
While the Southern Poverty Law Center tagged Geller “the anti-Muslim movement’s most flamboyant figurehead,” she has had mixed successes getting her ads to run by suing New York, Michigan and other cities under the First Amendment.
To avoid more litigation, the MTA adopted a blanket rule in May banning “prominently or predominantly political” advertisements.
In a June lawsuit, the producer of “The Muslims Are Coming!” said their ads did not fit that description.
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.
Judge McMahon agreed that this brand of light humor was hardly a call to the barricades, in a 22-page opinion released on Wednesday.
Referring to the producer, she wrote: “It has no specific political agenda or policy demands; it is not on a civil rights crusade.”
Applauding the decision, Obeidallah said it “would have been alarming if the MTA’s argument that being Muslim is inherently a political statement was accepted by the court.”
“I don’t, however, believe that the MTA officials were motivated by anti-Muslim bigotry,” the co-director added in an email.
Judge McMahon noted that the MTA ran unapologetically political ads for CNN’s recent coverage of the Republican Presidential Debate after spiking the film’s proposed ads.
“Those ads contained photographs of candidates alongside prominently displayed quotes, such as John Kasich’s ‘It is a bad system when billionaires can pick the one who can be the president,'” according to the opinion.
“To suggest, as the MTA’s actions do, that an advertisement for the Republican presidential debate with photographs and quotes from candidates is somehow less ‘political’ than humorous statements about the Muslim population’s dislike of both terrorism and insufficient bagel schmear is, quite clearly, not viewpoint neutral,” McMahon wrote.
New York City subway ads for the TV show “Mr. Robot” had political slogans like “Privacy Is a Myth,” “Corporations Own Your Minds” and “Banks Own Your Money,” she noted.
An MTA spokesman said that the agency is reviewing the decision.
In a Daily Beast article, Obeidallah quoted a study by the American Arab Institute that found Arabs and Muslims have the lowest favorable ratings among the groups covered.
Evoking this in his email, Obeidallah expressed concern about what he called “record levels” of Islamophobic views.
“We believe that funny, positive images of Muslims – such as with our posters or our documentary – are vitally needed now more than ever to counter the negative images and misconceptions people have about our faith,” Obeidallah said.
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