Religious Thuggery Threatens Free Speech in Michigan
by Nathaniel Sugarman • Jul 6, 2010 at 11:35 pm
The Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan will soon decide whether a public bus company can refuse to run ads that may offend Muslims.
The bus ads, sponsored by Pamela Geller's Freedom Defense Initiative (FDI), promote RefugeFromIslam.com, a website that reaches out to Muslims who have chosen to leave the faith but lack the tools to do so. The campaign has illuminated an inevitable choice that Michigan must make between supporting free speech and permitting the Dearborn Islamic Community to dictate what is publishable and what is off-limits.
Controversy ensued after the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), a Michigan bus company, refused to run the Refuge From Islam ads. Predictably, the Council on American Islamic-Relations (CAIR) enthusiastically endorsed SMART's decision. FDI, Geller, and Robert Spencer, as plaintiffs, filed a complaint, and recently moved for a temporary restraining order (TRO), which would compel SMART to run the ads.
There are both legal and political issues that merit discussion.
Legally, the question is, does SMART have the right to refuse equal time to Refuge From Islam? It appears that the answer is no. (Florida also answered no earlier this year.)
At first glance, it may seem that refusing to run ads is within SMART's discretion. But there are two reasons why that isn't so. First, SMART is a government agency, and the ads are displayed in a public forum, which means the speech is most likely protected by the First Amendment. Second, SMART's own policy dictates that, "First Amendment free speech rights require that SMART not censor free speech and because of that, SMART is required to provide equal access to advertising on our vehicles."
Legally, this should not be a tough decision for a judge to make. SMART should not be able to drop the ads and circumscribe FDI's free speech just because it may offend Muslims. Furthermore, SMART has run similar ads in the past that reached out to atheists, which will pose further obstacles for the defense because of SMART's "equal access" provision.
Politically, the question is, why would CAIR object to an ad campaign that offers assistance to victimized individuals who already want to leave Islam? Even if the ads were proselytizing, what's the big deal?
Well the answer can either be that the ads are truly "hateful" and "Islamophobic"--which still wouldn't necessarily mean that they are unlawful--or alternatively, that CAIR is more interested in suppressing anything that may reflect badly on Islam than helping victims of religious oppression.
Is the ad campaign hateful? It's hard to imagine how a reasonable person could draw that conclusion. View it here.
CAIR's indignation then is telling. On one hand, the article they chose to post on their website concerning the ad campaign states, "[i]s it free speech, subliminal stereotyping or hatemongering? It is all three." In other words, RefugeFromIslam.com is bad, but CAIR concedes it's protected speech. On the other hand, the head of CAIR's Michigan branch supports SMART removing the ads to appease the Muslim community. So does CAIR endorse protecting this speech or not? It would appear not.
In essence, this controversy is about Islamic intimidation to silence discordant speech.
Let's hope the Eastern District of Michigan doesn't capitulate to religious thuggery, and instead, as Miami did earlier this year, oblige the free exchange of ideas in public fora by compelling SMART to run Geller's ads.
If the court can compel SMART to run Refuge From Islam ads in heavily Islamic Dearborn, it would be a loud declaration that in Michigan the importance of free speech trumps concerns about offending particular groups.
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