Federal Judge: Politically Correct Censorship of Anti-Terrorism Advertisement Trumps First Amendment; AFLC Files Notice of Appeal

The American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) has filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, seeking review of a lower court ruling that denied AFLC’s motion for a preliminary injunction which requested that the court order the King County transit authority to display an anti-terrorism bus advertisement that it censored.

The proposed advertisement (directly below), which was submitted by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and its executive directors, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, included pictures, names, and a similar message from an earlier anti-terrorism advertisement sponsored by the U.S. State Department, which was accepted for display on King County buses.  The State Department advertisement depicted the “Faces of Global Terrorism” in an effort to “stop a terrorist” and “save lives.”  In addition, the advertisement offered an “up to $25 million reward” for helping to capture one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists.

AFDI Ad: Faces of Global Terrorism

[AFDI Advertisement]

Federal Government--Faces of Terrorism Ad

[State Department Advertisement]

Moreover, in the State Department advertisement (directly above), thirty out of the thirty-two listed terrorists had Muslim names or are wanted for terrorism related to organizations conducting terrorist acts in the name of Islam.  After complaints from a Washington State politician and two Muslim-American advocacy groups that claimed the list of wanted global terrorists appeared to include only Muslim terrorists, the federal government terminated its “Faces of Global Terrorism” advertisement campaign.  

In response to the government’s decision to remove its advertisement, AFDI created its own, similar advertisement to replace it.  However, despite originally accepting the government’s advertisement, King County rejected AFDI’s ad, claiming that it was offensive to Muslims.

On January 27, 2014, David Yerushalmi, AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel, presented oral argument before Federal Judge Richard A. Jones, sitting in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. [See video of oral argument here.]  Yerushalmi argued that King County’s refusal to run the advertisement was an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech and therefore the court should order the agency to display the advertisement immediately.

Understandingly, Judge Jones noted in his ruling on AFLC’s request for a preliminary injunction that “[t]he court is aware of potential constitutional problems when government officials are given unbridled discretion in regulating speech, including in limited public fora. . . . [and] [t]he court notes that this case presents a close question and the court has grave concerns about defendant’s Policy where application of the civility provisions appear to be somewhat of a moving target.”

Nevertheless, Judge Jones ruled that King County’s decision to reject the advertisement was “reasonable,” specifically noting that the term “jihadis,” which was displayed in AFDI’s advertisement, had “different meanings” and therefore the message could be offensive to Muslims.

David Yerushalmi, AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel, commented:

“As Judge Jones noted in his opinion, the constitutional implications in this case are significant.  Unfortunately, the power of political correctness in this day and age is too often more significant than our most precious liberty—free speech.  For the court to find that labeling an Islamic terrorist as a jihadist might be reasonably determined to be offensive demonstrates how far government restrictions on speech have veered from the Constitution.”

AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel Robert Muise commented:

“It is remarkable how the government is not only willing to abandon reality in the name of political correctness—the reality that sharia-adherent jihadists pose a significant threat to our national security—but that it is also willing to literally throw the First Amendment under the bus in the process.  We are confident that we will get this decision ultimately reversed on appeal.”

AFLC has represented Geller, Spencer, and AFDI successfully in federal lawsuits across the country, most notably in New York and Washington, D.C., where the courts ordered the transit authorities to run AFDI’s anti-terrorism advertisements.  In both of those cases, the transit authorities were forced to pay substantial legal fees to AFLC.  Last year, the Chicago transit authority initially refused to run an AFDI “anti-jihad” advertisement, only to capitulate after stating in a letter that while the transit authorities considered the advertisement “morally reprehensible,” they were aware of AFLC’s successful litigation in New York and Washington. In that case, Yerushalmi commented, “the CTA has capitulated grudgingly, apparently, to the First Amendment of the Constitution.”