SEPTA Loses Round in Anti-Islam Bus Ad Battle

Judge says First Amendment protects political speech — even if it's false.

SEPTA has lost an early round in its battle to keep an anti-Islam advertisement off of its buses. A federal judge last week ruled the agency cannot present testimony that the ad is false — saying the First Amendment protects political speech even when it’s incorrect.

“Long standing Supreme Court precedent instructs that political speech does not lose First Amendment protection simply because the listener believes that it is false or disagrees with the message it advances,” Judge Mitchell Goldberg wrote in his ruling. (See the full ruling below.)

The American Freedom Defense Initiative, a New Hampshire-based anti-Muslim organization designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (it also goes by the name Stop Islamization of America) filed its lawsuit against SEPTA in September after the agency refused to let the organization run the above advertisement on SEPTA buses.

According to the suit, SEPTA refused the ad on the basis that it violated SEPTA’s policy against the “disparagement” or “ridicule” of any “person or group of persons on the basis of race, religious belief, age, sex, alienage, national origin, sickness or disability.”

The lawsuit is still in its early stages: Goldberg’s ruling concerned testimony that will be allowed at a hearing on a request for a preliminary injunction against the agency.

SEPTA planned to present the testimony of Jamal Elias, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, who would have called the ad false on two counts — first, in identifying Haj Amin Al-Husseini as “the leader of the Muslim world,” and second, in asserting that the Quran teaches “Jew-hatred.” Elias said that assertion is “unfair and erroneous.”

AFDI countered, however, that SEPTA didn’t reject the ad because of concerns about falsity, but based on its policy against disparagement. And Goldberg ultimately agreed with the group’s argument that the ad deserves First Amendment protection because it “constitutes political expression and reflects Plaintiffs’ interpretation of a religious text.”

“The advertisement at issue here is exactly the sort of political expression that lies at the heart of the First Amendment,” Goldberg wrote.

Court records indicate a scheduling conference took place last week, but do not indicate when or what the next steps in the lawsuit will be.