Muslim Advocacy Group Takes MTA to Court Over Ads

muslim ad
An advertisement designed by Vaguely Qualified Productions to promote its film, 'The Muslims Are Coming.' This ad, and several more like it, were banned by the MTA. Courtesy of 'The Muslims Are Coming'

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority's (MTA) advertising policy is being challenged in a lawsuit filed Thursday by an organization called the Muslim Advocates on behalf of Vaguely Qualified Productions.

Advertisements designed by the production company had been approved by the MTA and were paid for, but they never ran. After the MTA changed its advertising policy in late April, the transit authority said the ads failed to meet the new standards. The MTA's new advertising standards have been the point of much contention among First Amendment experts, some of whom believe they are in violation of free speech rights.

Last fall, VQP created a series of ads to promote its film, The Muslims Are Coming. The film was made by two American Muslim comedians and aims to combat Islamophobia. The advertisements were meant to poke fun at Islamophobia, with copy such as, "The ugly truth about Muslims: Muslims have great frittata recipes" and "Beware: the Muslims are coming! And they shall strike with hugs so fierce, you'll end up calling your grandmother and telling her you love her." Each ad mentions the company's website.

VQP told Newsweek it went back and forth with the MTA for months, redesigning fonts and changing copy to get the ads within the MTA's standards. The MTA demanded words like "poop" and "penis" be removed from the ads, and VQP complied in order to have the ads run. At the time, VQP did not have an attorney and dealt with the MTA directly. Its lawyer through Muslim Advocates said the MTA's language policing violated the production company's right to free speech.

After the changes were made, the MTA approved the ads in April. Glenn Katon, the Muslim Advocates legal director, told Newsweek the MTA told the company to look for the ads "around April 27.... But they didn't run." He said the MTA changed its advertising policy on April 29.

The new MTA policy classified the aDS as political, meaning they were not allowed to run in subways or on buses. The old policy, under which the ads were approved, did not have such a caveat.

The policy change followed a lawsuit filed by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a pro-Israel group that wanted to run an ad reading: "Killing Jews is worship that draws us close to Allah." A man in a face scarf appears in the ad with the caption: "That's his Jihad, what's yours?" The MTA argued the ad could incite violence and therefore did not meet the requirements of First Amendment protection. Judge John G. Koeltl disagreed with the MTA and said the ad would have to be allowed.

In order to circumvent Koeltl's ruling, the MTA revised its advertising policy. The new policy banned advertising that expresses "a political message...an opinion, position, or viewpoint regarding disputed economic, political, moral, religious or social issues or related matters, or support for or opposition to disputed issues or causes." Under that policy, The Muslims Are Coming ad campaign was shut down, regardless of its prior approval.

VQP takes two issues with the MTA's decision not to run its ads: It believes its ads are commercial, not political, as they promote a movie; and it notes that unlike the American Freedom Defense Initiative's ad, its advertisements had been approved. "We did everything they wanted, we agreed and they went back on their word. Its about fairness," Dean Obeidallah, one of the comedians in the film, told Newsweek.

Notably, the production company paid for the ads and the MTA accepted the funds, the suit alleges. The MTA received $15,000, the minimum ad buy, and did not return the funds when it banned the ads.

When reached for comment on the suit, the MTA did not address the payment but said: "We have not yet been served with a lawsuit from Vaguely Qualified Productions and thus cannot comment on it, but we are pleased with Judge Koeltl's ruling last week which mentioned their proposed advertisements."

Last week, Koeltl revisited the case between the American Freedom Defense Initiative and the MTA. He wrote that the MTA's adoption of the new policy "has rendered this court's preliminary injunction moot."

Koeltl notes that "no law requires public transit agencies to accept political advertisements as a matter of course," Attorney Robert Garson, a First Amendment expert, said the MTA has "decided to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut."

"They don't want to be making these tough decisions.... Its much easier to put things into an all or nothing situation from their policing perspective," Garson told Newsweek. "It would it be nice if every governmental body would stand by its word and say, 'Well we approved it prior, we took the money, and we stand by our word.' However, they're not in the position to do that in light of the policy change that was required after the last case."

In this second legal battle, the MTA's new policy will be up for debate as much as the fate of the movie ads. The MTA has already been criticized by First Amendment experts as acting like an "offensiveness police." Though VQP is seeking about $20,000 in damages, its main hope is that the ads will finally run.

"It is simply not politically disputed content," said comedian Negin Farsad, also a producer of the film. "We just want these ads up in New York."

Muslim Advocacy Group Takes MTA to Court Over Ads | U.S.