Court Orders NYC Transit Agency to Run 'Muslims Are Coming!' Movie Ads
by Jacob Gershman
A federal judge in New York barred the Metropolitan Transportation Authority from banning a subway ad campaign promoting a provocatively titled film featuring Muslim comedians.
The ruling on Wednesday is the latest First Amendment defeat for the public New York City transit agency over advertising it censored.
The documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" follows a group of Muslim-American comedians on a tour through middle America to combat anti-Muslim sentiment. The film's production company, Vaguely Qualified Productions LLC, sued the MTA in June for rejecting its plans to run posters promoting the film throughout the city's subway system.
The transit agency initially approved the campaign, but then rejected it under a new policy that prohibits political advertising.
The old policy banned ads that the agency deemed demeaning to individuals or groups. The new one restricts ads that express any political message or religious viewpoint.
The MTA instituted it after losing a series of similar First Amendment cases , including a dispute over a controversial campaign by a pro-Israel group that described enemies of the Jewish state as "savages." The MTA thought a more sweeping policy would insulate the government agency from constitutional challenges.
Lawyers for the MTA officials said the agency's designation of the posters as political — and thus not acceptable — was a "viewpoint neutral" decision that didn't violate speech rights.
U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon found that argument unconvincing, granting a preliminary injunction.
"The very fact that Defendants delved so deeply into whether [Vaguely Qualified Productions] had a political objective is evidence of Defendants' lack of viewpoint neutrality," she wrote in her decision.
"Indeed, the evidence before the court plainly indicates that VQP's silly advertisements were subject to greater scrutiny than other potentially controversial ads," the judge said. Among her examples:
A spokesman for the MTA said the agency is reviewing Wednesday's decision.
"Shutting down a couple of American Muslim comedians from spreading delightfulness on the subway? That never made sense," one of the creators of the ad, Negin Farsad, said in a statement released by Muslim Advocates, a legal advocacy organization representing the plaintiffs.
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