A dose of problematic free speech politics with your subway ride? The above poster, being read by subway rider Javerea Khan in the Times Square Station is a $6,000 ad from the American Freedom Defense Initiative that sports a paraphrased Ayn Rand quote - “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.” Regardless of your religion, and regardless of where you stand on Israeli-Palestinian politics and nationhood debates, this poster ought to be considered racist. (Really, any situation in which a bit of rhetoric contains the word savage, particularly in close proximity to the word civilized - you’ve got some racism on your hands, a particularly colonially-based kind.)
But, it is one thing to pass judgment on this as racist - where does it fall in free speech considerations? A year ago, when the MTA first saw the ad submitted by the AFDI, they rejected it based on an MTA code barring speech that is “demeaning.” But last week, a federal court ruled that it was protected under the First Amendment, rejecting the MTA’s policy as unconstitutional. The full ruling accompanies this report here. (The ad is also being run on the San Francisco subways, but alongside an ad from the SF MTA decrying statements that refer to any group of people as savages.)
This is one of those sticky moments when the speech being presented is (to me, and to lots of people closer to the debate than I) insulting and angering. It’s poor rhetoric: racist and inflammatory, and it would be excellent if that kind of ad weren’t being posted in the subway. At the same time, free speech protections still apply to even the most egregious of statements. It’s not just a slippery slope issue, though, or even about the fact that in a democracy everyone gets their say (for $6000, in this case), even those we don’t like. Part of why free speech is important is because it allows us to see debates like these play out. The nasty elements of rhetoric and debate don’t get erased and wiped away, instead, they’re out in the open for us to recognize and challenge and deconstruct.
Photo by Jim O’Grady.