NYT Op-Ed: SEPTA “Censors” Controversial Speech
An op-ed in today’s New York Times accuses SEPTA and transit agencies in New York and Washington D.C. of “censorship” for policies refusing to feature political advertising on buses and trains.
The critique comes just days after SEPTA adopted a new policy banning such ads; a move made in the aftermath of a court order to feature anti-Islamic advertising on city buses for 30 days. The ads were carried by SEPTA during the month of April; the group that sponsored the ads — the American Freedom Defense Initiative — was targeted last month in Texas for a deadly attack at a “draw Muhammad” art contest it sponsored.
Betsy McCaughey is a conservative activist best known, perhaps, for her opposition to universal health insurance programs offered by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and, more recently, by President Barack Obama. She wrote today’s op-ed:
In Philadelphia, a federal judge in March ordered the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority to accept a bus ad from the group that shows a 1941 meeting of Adolf Hitler and a Palestinian Arab nationalist leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini, with the line: “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s in the Quran.” On Thursday, after the ads came down, the agency banned future advertising “expressing or advocating an opinion, position or viewpoint about economic, political, religious, historical or social issues.”
The M.T.A. chairman, Thomas F. Prendergast, has said his agency was “diverted” from its main work by the distraction of dealing with the controversial ads, an argument also cited in Washington and Philadelphia. He and his colleagues either don’t realize or don’t care that freedom requires tolerating distasteful ideas. “If liberty means anything at all,” George Orwell wrote, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
And that’s what organizations like the American Freedom Defense Initiative do: They say things that many people don’t want to hear.
Yes, public safety is important, of course, but transit agencies cannot kowtow in fear merely because someone has made — or might make — a threat of violence, and certainly not because an ad might be offensive.
McCaughey predicted the new policies would fail a court challenge. SEPTA officials said today they disagree with her op-ed.
“We do not believe it is censorship,” said Jeri Williams, SEPTA’s director of media relations. “We respect the right to a public forum, but do not believe a SEPTA vehicle is the right platform.”
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