Seattle, Washington (September 27, 2018) — Today, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously ruled that King County’s rejection of a “Faces of Global Terrorism” ad submitted by Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, and their organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), violated the First Amendment.
In its ruling, the Ninth Circuit held that the County’s rejection of the ad based on its disparagement standard was viewpoint discrimination and that its rejection of the ad based on its disruption standard was unreasonable, all in violation of the First Amendment.
The lawsuit was filed by the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington at Seattle on behalf of Geller, Spencer, and AFDI.
The ad at issue was modeled after an advertisement submitted by the federal government and accepted for display by the County in 2013. The State Department ad depicted the “Faces of Global Terrorism” in an effort to “stop a terrorist” and “save lives.” The advertisement offered an “up to $25 million reward” for helping to capture one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists.
The terrorists identified in the ad were also found on the FBI’s most wanted global terrorists list, which is posted on the FBI’s website. At the time, this list included pictures and “wanted posters” for thirty-two terrorists. Of the thirty-two listed terrorists, thirty were individuals with Muslim names or were wanted for terrorism related to organizations conducting terrorist acts in the name of Islam.
According to news reports, the federal government terminated its “Faces of Global Terrorism” ad campaign after receiving complaints from politicians and advocacy groups that took offense that the list of wanted global terrorists pictured in the ad appeared to include only Muslim terrorists.
Shortly after the government pulled the ad, Geller and Spencer, on behalf of AFDI, submitted an ad to the County that included the same pictures, names, and message as the government’s earlier display. The County transit authority refused to run the ad in part because it claimed the ad was not wholly accurate about which government agency ran the rewards program and the amount of the awards, prompting AFLC to file this lawsuit.
After the courts agreed with the County, AFDI submitted a revised ad, this time making certain the ad was presented in such a way that removed the inaccuracy argument. The County still refused to run the ad on the grounds that it was disparaging to Muslims and that it would be disruptive to the transit authority.
The trial court once again ruled in favor of the County. AFLC appealed to the Ninth Circuit, and the Ninth Circuit reversed, concluding that “[b]ecause neither of the [County’s] reasons for rejecting Plaintiffs’ revised ad withstands First Amendment scrutiny, we reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the County and remand with instructions to enter summary judgment for Plaintiffs on this claim.”
AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel Robert Muise commented:
“This is an important victory for free speech. Too often we are seeing government officials restricting speech based on claims that it is demeaning, disparaging, or offensive. The First Amendment does not allow such censorship, as the Ninth Circuit’s opinion makes clear. Under the First Amendment, the government is not permitted to impose special prohibitions on speakers who express views on disfavored subjects or on the basis of hostility towards the messenger or the underlying message expressed.”
David Yerushalmi, AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel, added:
“It is clear from the record and the Ninth Circuit’s decision that King County, which initially accepted the federal government’s ad only to have the feds pull the ad for fear of offending Muslims, is suffering from the debilitating disease of political correctness. And there is little doubt that County officials also dislike the messenger—our clients—who are doing a great service by alerting all Americans to the dangers of sharia and its followers.”
AFLC has represented Geller, Spencer, and AFDI successfully in federal lawsuits across the country, most notably in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where the courts have ordered the transit authorities to run AFDI’s anti-terrorism ads. In each of those cases, the transit authorities were forced to pay substantial legal fees to AFLC. In Chicago, the transit authority initially refused to run an AFDI “anti-jihad” ad, only to capitulate after stating in a letter that while transit authority officials considered the ad “morally reprehensible,” they were aware of AFLC’s successful litigation.