American Freedom Defense Initiative v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA)

On September 18, 2014, the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) for refusing to run a “Stop the Islamic Jew-Hatred” advertisement on SEPTA property.  The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on behalf of the advertisement’s sponsors, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and its co-founders, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer.

In May, AFDI submitted the below advertisement to SEPTA’s advertising agent for display on SEPTA property:

Pro-Israel Ad

As noted in the lawsuit, AFDI’s message is timely in light of the fact that many Jews (and Christians) are being persecuted in Islamic countries in the Middle East, and many of these countries receive aid from the United States.  Moreover, the Israel / Palestinian conflict has drawn intense international media attention as Hamas is using human shields (mostly innocent women and children) to protect its rockets from Israel’s defense forces as the Islamic terrorist organization continues its deadly attack of Jews in Israel.

Although SEPTA accepts as a matter of policy and practice controversial political-issue, public-issue, and religious-issue advertisements, it rejected AFDI’s advertisement, claiming that the ad “tends to disparage or ridicule any person or group of persons on the basis of race, religious belief, age, sex, alienage, national origin, sickness or disability.”

The lawsuit alleges that SEPTA’s prior restraint on AFDI’s speech violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

CASE UPDATE (October 2, 2014): AFLC filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, requesting that the court order SEPTA to display the advertisement.

CASE UPDATE (October 28, 2014): AFLC filed a motion to exclude SEPTA’s proposed “expert” testimony.  SEPTA is claiming that AFDI’s public-issue advertisement is false.  However, as argued in the motion, it is impermissible under the First Amendment for the government to censor public-issue speech on the grounds of falsity.

CASE UPDATE (November 13, 2014): AFLC filed its reply in support of its motion to exclude “expert” testimony.

CASE UPDATE (November 25, 2014): Judge granted AFLC’s motion to exclude “expert” testimony, agreeing with AFLC that it is impermissible for the government to censor public-issue speech on the grounds of falsity.

CASE UPDATE (December 16, 2014): Hearing held in federal court in Philadelphia on AFLC’s motion for preliminary injunction.

CASE UPDATE (January 9, 2015): AFLC filed its post-hearing brief in support of its motion for preliminary injunction.

CASE UPDATE (March 11, 2015): Federal judge granted our motion for preliminary injunction, finding that SEPTA’s speech restriction violated the First Amendment.  The ads ran.  Case closed.