American Freedom Defense Initiative v. WMATA

On July 1, 2015, the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) for refusing to run a “Support Free Speech” advertisement that depicted the winning entry of the “Draw Mohammad Contest” recently held in Garland, Texas.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of the advertisement’s sponsors, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and its co-founders, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer.

On May 20, 2015, Geller submitted the advertisement to WMATA’s advertising agent for display on WMATA’s buses and dioramas.  Geller stated that they “wish to submit the following ad to run on 20 Washington DC buses and 5 DC Dioramas including Foggy Bottom, Capitol South, Bethesda, L’Enfant Plaza, Shady Grove and Union Station (if available).

The proposed ads for display on WMATA’s buses included a picture of the winning entry of the cartoon contest.


AFDI’s advertisements make the point that the First Amendment will not yield to Sharia-adherent Islamists who want to enforce so-called blasphemy laws here in the United States, whether through threats of violence or through the actions of complicit government officials.

Because WMATA determined that it would not display AFDI’s advertisements on the basis of the content and viewpoint of the message, on or about May 28, 2015, WMATA’s Board of Directors took the unprecedented step of adopting a resolution that “directs management to close WMATA’s advertising space to any and all issue-oriented advertising, including but not limited to, political, religious, and advocacy advertising until the end of the calendar year.”

As a result of this resolution, which was adopted for the purpose of suppressing AFDI/s speech, WMATA will not display the advertisements.

Pursuant to clearly established First Amendment jurisprudence, the loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury sufficient to warrant injunctive relief.

Moreover, as further alleged in the Complaint, changes to a forum motivated by actual viewpoint discrimination, as in this case, are impermissible under the First Amendment.  Consequently, because the true purpose of WMATA’s resolution was to silence AFDI’s disfavored speech, the federal courts are capable of taking prompt and measurably appropriate action to remedy this First Amendment violation.

The Complaint alleges violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

CASE UPDATE (March 28, 2017): The district court denied our motion for summary judgment and granted WMATA’s motion.  We appealed.

CASE UPDATE: Read our opening brief in the D.C. Circuit here, and our reply brief here.

CASE UPDATE (August 17, 2018): The D.C. Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s adverse ruling, remanding the case for the district court to determine whether the restriction was “reasonable” in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

CASE UPDATE (September 10, 2018): We filed a petition for rehearing en banc, asking the entire court to review the case.  The D.C. Circuit instructed WMATA to file a response.

CASE UPDATE (January 28, 2019): We filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court.