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Anti-Muslim Subway Ads Enjoy the Freedom to Offend

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly this morning, President Barack Obama vigorously defended the freedom of speech, noting that even if the U.S. government could prevent the dissemination of offensive statements and images, it would never do so. “The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression,” said Obama. “It is more speech—the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”

Obama began his remarks with a tribute to U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed two weeks ago by Islamists in Libya. And he made clear that it is possible to support someone’s right to make offensive statements while also criticizing their decision to do so. Referring to the anti-Muslim video that has sparked outrage in Egypt and other majority Muslim countries, Obama said: “The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet Mohammad.”

Speaking of Pamela Geller…

Yes, at the same time that Obama was counseling world leaders to embrace tolerance, professional Islamophobe Pamela Geller and her American Freedom Defense Initiative launched an anti-Muslim ad campaign in New York subways. The large wall ads, which are posted in at least ten subway stations, read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

New York’s Metro Transit Authority originally rejected the ads, citing a regulation that prohibits offensive language. However, a federal judge ruled that Geller’s posters were protected by the First Amendment and ordered the MTA to allow the ads. By midday on Tuesday, New Yorkers had taken it upon themselves to reject the ads, posting stickers that read “RACIST” or “HATE SPEECH” on ads in at least seven stations.

On her blog Atlas Shrugs (better back away even faster from your Ayn Rand fanboy years, Paul Ryan), Geller compares defacement of anti-Muslim ads to blasphemy laws in Muslim countries. The American Islamic Congress has taken a more measured response to the ads, in this statement from executive director Zainab Al-Suwaij: “First and foremost, we support freedom of speech and the First Amendment. Do we like what the ads say? No. Nor is it a helpful contribution to our ongoing national dialogue, especially in this environment of heightened tensions. However, they have a right to state their opinion, and that’s where America’s greatness resides.”

The fight over subway propaganda now moves to D.C., where Geller has sought to place her ads in Metro stations. The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority has also refused to accept the ads and will make its case in the U.S. District Court on October 4.

Most of us accept that the sharing of offensive statements and beliefs are just the price we pay to live in a free society. There’s no law that says we have to like it. We just have to support each other’s right to speak freely. Sometimes, though, it’s tempting to wish we could lock Pamela Geller and her buddies in a junior high gymnasium with Muslim extremists, arm them all with rotten tomatoes, and let them have at it.