• ‘Killing Jews is Worship’ Posters to Appear on NYC Subways and Buses?

    May 1, 2015

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy


    A story of our times, with massive First Amendment issues embedded.

    Kill Jews

    A federal judge ruled that a group (more below, who they are makes this case even more complex) may put up posters on New York’s public buses and subways saying “Killing Jews is worship that draws us close to Allah.” The poster features a young man in a checkered headscarf with the additional words “That’s His Jihad. What’s yours?”

    The poster is now at the epicenter between public safety and free speech. On Tuesday, a District judge ruled New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) cannot stop the controversial ad.

    The MTA argued the ad could incite violence against Jews.

    However, MTA officials “underestimate the tolerant quality of New Yorkers and overestimate the potential impact of these fleeting advertisements,” the judge stated in his ruling. “Moreover, there is no evidence that seeing one of these advertisements on the back of a bus would be sufficient to trigger a violent reaction. Therefore, these ads — offensive as they may be — are still entitled to First Amendment protection.”

    The MTA has now fired the next shot in the struggle, banning all “political” advertising on its subways and buses. You can certainly expect that decision to be challenged by a very broad range of actors.

    The Speaker Versus the Speech

    The issues surrounding the “Kill Jews” poster are complicated, in that the sponsor is a pro-Israel, anti-Muslim organization. Pamela Geller, the president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), the group that purchased the ads and sued the MTA to run them, was overjoyed at the court’s decision to allow her to post the, to some, inflammatory ads.

    The Southern Poverty Law Center considers AFDI an “anti-Muslim” hate group. For example, earlier this year AFDI organized a portrait of the Prophet Mohammed contest, despite objections from Muslims who consider images of the Prophet blasphemous.

    The presumed purpose of the “Kill Jews” ads placed by a pro-Israel group is to conflate the murder of innocents of one religion by smearing all members of another religion.

    But can they say that kind of thing? Isn’t it Hate Speech and isn’t that illegal?

    The Limits of Free Speech

    The right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution isn’t there for the easy cases; it is there for the tough ones.

    The Supreme Court has thus been very reluctant in modern times to issue limits on free speech; what is now commonly called “hate speech,” things like the Klu Klux Klan using the N-word, or religious fundamentalists protesting at veteran’s funerals by way of anti-gay slurs, have been ruled repeatedly to be protected acts of free speech. You get the good with the bad, no matter what you personally consider the good parts and the bad parts.

    See how it works?

    Some Bad History

    The broad concept of free speech is somewhat recent in the Supreme Court’s mind.

    One of the most shameful examples of restraint comes from the early 20th century case of U.S. v. Schenck. In that case, the Court decided Charles Schenck, the Secretary of the Socialist Party of America, could be convicted under the Espionage Act for writing and distributing a pamphlet that expressed opposition to the draft during World War I. It was in that case that Justice Holmes made his famous statement in favor of restraint, the one about free speech not allowing someone to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre.

    So hate speech is illegal, like shouting Fire! and panicking a whole theatre full of people, right?

    That Was Then, This is Now

    The Supreme Court then did a 180 degree turn in the 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, which basically overturned Schenck. The Court held that inflammatory speech, even speech advocating violence, is protected under the First Amendment unless the speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

    That is where today’s New York District judge’s specific wording came from. When he said that New Yorker’s would understand the broader political point of the “Kill Jews” poster and not actually be moved to murder, he was confirming the standard set in Brandenburg v. Ohio: you have to do more than just announce an intent toward violence, your statement has to be such that people will be actually willing to follow it.

    Back to the New York Buses

    Of course predicting what people might do in response to any bit of speech is very hard stuff. But the Supreme Court in fact granted that power to predict to the judicial system. In the “Kill Jews” case, the judge clearly decided no one would see the ads and decide, based on that, to actually commit murder.

    And that brings us back to Justice Holmes, the same Supreme Court judge who gave us the “fire in the crowded theatre” lines. Holmes later recanted, and became a firm advocate of nearly unrestrained free speech. Holmes wrote (Abrams v. United States) that the marketplace of ideas offered the best solution for tamping down offensive speech:

    The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

    In other words, let the ads play out on the New York buses and subways. The people are smart enough to know garbage when they smell it.

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  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...


      I guess free speech must include anonymity. Shouldn’t the authors and backers of such advertising have to be easily identifiable or does that invalidate the right to express oneself without endangering oneself. Of course people or groups can use aliases and covers just as they do on this website.

      05/1/15 9:30 AM | Comment Link

    • Bloozguy said...


      “people are smart enough to know garbage when they smell it” … ummm no they’re not.

      05/1/15 9:53 AM | Comment Link

    • Bruce said...


      Correct. It’s literally shouting “BOMB!” on the bus!

      05/1/15 11:43 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      I think that if one were sitting on bus seat across from a fully burked person (do you really know if they are female or male?) whose eyes were darting around and then glanced up to see such a sign above their head one might feel endangered and get off at the next stop. It would inconvenience many who aren’t clinically paranoid.

      05/1/15 12:30 PM | Comment Link

    • chuck nasmith said...


      See Todays “Mondoweiss” regarding Baltimore/Israeli protest. No Justice No Peace…

      05/1/15 3:59 PM | Comment Link

    • teri said...


      Pamela Geller? She’s still around? Jeez, why don’t these people hurry the fuck up and rapture already?

      05/2/15 6:38 AM | Comment Link

    • Bruce said...


      Indeed! With such “rapturous” ‘certainty’, Why WAIT?!

      05/2/15 8:30 PM | Comment Link

    • Nic108 said...


      I’m not an anti-semite but I am anti-Pamela Geller. Horrible, horrible woman

      05/3/15 11:48 PM | Comment Link

    • teri said...


      Yee-ha. I know no-one goes back and reads comments on a “dead thread”, but I hope Peter sees this, at least. Pam Geller was one of the organizers for an “art exhibit” and cartoon contest in Texas this past weekend. The “art” was to see who could do the best Mohammed cartoon mocking and/or slurring the prophet Mohammed. This disguised hate speech is, naturally, protected as free speech. Two gunmen opened fire at the close of the event, presumably in protest of the cartoons. They have both been killed by cops.

      They may or may not have been “homegrown terrorists”. Geller for sure is a hate-monger racist fuckwit. With more than ample free speech rights with which to spread her stupidity into the commons.


      05/4/15 10:02 AM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...


      Geller is a pig. That said, the First Amendment side of all this is what really interests. It is easy for me to blare away about free speech when it is Snowden or like that, but Geller is a real intellectual and emotional test.

      As it should be.

      05/4/15 10:10 AM | Comment Link

    • Lisa said...


      It’s an interesting question, and I think it befits us to stay off of the ad hominem attacks, no? (I don’t know this person, but it seems the message is the topic, not the messenger. Though I’ll jump on Hillary with the best of ’em, why is this woman a “pig”?)

      How about this sign, “Lynch a negro for Christ”? Pretty touchy today, no? or, “No Michael Brown, no problem” — that sort of thing.

      Does it get the “go” in our “marketplace of ideas”?

      05/4/15 9:51 PM | Comment Link

    • teri said...


      Yes, it is a real test. However, it seems that the ones demanding and getting these “free speech rights” these days are always the ones in a position of power and privilege in the first place. I never seem to hear about Muslims demanding and being given the right to draw salacious cartoons about Jesus to be featured in publications, and one can imagine the uproar if actual Muslims had wanted to put up posters mocking Christians and Jews in the public subways. Minorities are considered domestic threats and at the least closely and constantly monitored (or worse) if they wear t-shirts reading “fuck the police” or speak out against the treatment of their race or religion in some way, while the ones getting a free pass to make any ugly, repulsive, demeaning statements they like about others – particularly statements based on race or religion – tend to be people who are in a more powerful position to begin with than the ones they repeatedly insult.

      The free speech rights we enjoy in the US are not equal rights applied equally to all, no matter how much we would like to think so, or theorize that it is so.

      05/5/15 7:28 AM | Comment Link

    • Lisa said...


      Yes, teri, one can imagine the uproar if actual Muslims had wanted to put up posters mocking Christians and Jews in the public subways. Heaven forfend they draw posters. Better they just on with the actual killing.

      Those the posters are challenging don’t worry about such niceties as debate in the public square. And make no mistake, it’s not just Jews, but Christians getting persecuted and whacked, too.

      How is it you feel free speech is not apportioned to all in the U.S.? Isn’t that the point of Peter’s piece?

      05/5/15 1:34 PM | Comment Link

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