A perfect example of how carving out a “small” exception to free-speech norms for cartoons of Mohammed ends up consuming free speech more broadly. Geller submitted the winning entry in her Mohammed cartoon contest to D.C. authorities, with the caption “Support Free Speech” above it, and asked them to run it as an ad on public transportation. A private entity could tell her no but it’s not that simple for the state — under the First Amendment, they can’t discriminate based on viewpoint. In fact, Geller won a lawsuit against the Philly transit authority just two months ago for that reason, after they rejected an ad she’d submitted about anti-semitism and the Koran.
It’s not viewpoint discrimination, though, if the state decides to reject all issue-oriented ads, regardless of the view they happen to take. After agreeing to run Geller’s ad for a few weeks, Philly changed its policy to ban PSAs across the board because they didn’t want to be forced to run any more ads from her and needed a “neutral” reason to reject them. Now here’s D.C. following the same playbook. If censoring images of Mohammed means forfeiting millions in ad revenue and denying a platform to social-interest groups across the spectrum, hey. Anything for Mo.
— Bruce Leshan (@BruceLeshan) May 28, 2015
There’s a silver lining, though. Unlike in most settings, where suppressing images of Mohammed is spun as a matter of sensitivity rather than fear, D.C. Metro is admirably candid in their reasoning.
Imagine being a D.C. bus driver and finding out you’ll be spending the next few weeks joined at the hip to a giant Mohammed cartoon for eight hours a day. Philly authorities also acknowledged fears of terrorism when they opposed Geller’s ad; in fact, they said at the time that drivers who objected to being behind the wheel of a bus with it on the side would be “given a level of understanding that would be different than in other situations.” Those acknowledgments are a minor victory for Geller even if her ad, and everyone else’s ads, ends up being cashiered. She’s forcing the state to admit that the threat of violence is so great that, as a matter of pure public safety, they’d rather give up easy revenue than take the chance of insulting “the prophet.” And, thanks to D.C.’s new policy, she’s gotten the state to spread the cost of censorship to other would-be issue-advertisers, which drives home the point to the wider public that the slippery slope on “hate speech” might be more slippery than the lefties who disdain her tend to assume.