First Amendment

09.21.12

John Avlon: Free Speech, Civility Collide on the New York Subways

Fear merchants like Pamela Geller are exploiting the First Amendment with hateful public messages. If they’re trying to save ‘civilized man,’ why must they promote such incivility?

This Monday, 10 subway stations throughout New York City will be adorned with this welcoming message: “In any war between civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” It is paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the funding vehicle for anti-Islamist activist Pamela Geller.

The ads have been posted at the order of a judge after one year of legal wrangling with the MTA. U.S. District Court Judge Paul A. Englemayer concluded that when “as a reasonable person would, the AFDI ad plainly depicts Muslims… as savages.”

But of course, our civilization has freedom of speech, even for conspiracy entrepreneurs and fear merchants like Geller and her lawyer, David Yerushalmi, who make their living trying to freak people out about the nonexistent rise of Sharia law in places like Oklahoma.

By way of background, Geller positioned herself front and center at the now slightly surreal Ground Zero mosque protests in the summer of 2010. Some of her fellow travelers in the anti-Islamist beat were wrapped up in the “film” that was used to spur attacks on our embassies in the Middle East, more or less exactly as intended. Extremes feed off each other.

To get an objective sense of just how far out Pamela Geller is, take a look at the daily teeth-gnashing on her website Atlas Shrugs or just listen to her interview with Erin Burnett on CNN’s OutFront Thursday night, where Geller dismissed the Anti-Defamation League by saying that no one who loves Israel “takes them seriously.”

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For their part, the ADL describes Geller’s group as “an anti-Muslim activist group, and you don’t have to be anti-Muslim to be pro-Israel.” This has the added advantage of being true.

Reasonable people can see through Geller’s super-patriot shtick and see that what she’s really aiming for is attention and incitement.

Geller says her ad is in reaction to an ad run in the subways last September calling for an end to military aid for Israel, which she characterized as hateful.

The old line about how “I despise what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” applies here. Reasonable people can see through Geller’s super-patriot shtick and see that what she’s really aiming for is attention and incitement. The cycle of incitement can quickly get out of hand, as the California-based Coptic Christian filmmaker has discovered, either to his despair or delight.

At a board meeting next week, the MTA will decide how to deal with such advertisements in the future. One possible solution will be to add a disclaimer to any ad that is not selling a product, saying who is paying for it, and then stating that the MTA is not responsible for the content of the ad. That would seem to be a practical solution consistent with free speech and civility.

That’s the point that people like Geller don’t seem to get—the civil society we seek to defend from jihadists and other aggressors depends upon advancing civility as an example more powerful than hate.