Home Asides Uncomfortably, buses carry religious messages

Uncomfortably, buses carry religious messages

by Benjamin Kabak

Every few months, some interest group — a union, a political party, a religious organization — buys some ad space from the MTA on its buses or subways, and New Yorkers are converted into people with no tolerance for opposing viewpoints. Today’s controversial ad comes to us from Metro New York, and it concerns a Muslims for peace advertisement.

According to Metro’s Carly Baldwin, the warring ads concerning Islam — one ran recently calling for support from former Muslims — has led one MTA Board member to question religious ads. “I don’t think we should be having any religious ads on our facilities,” Andrew Albert said. “I understand if you run one, you must run them all. The question is: Should we run any of them? Somebody is going to get offended.”

Somebody will get offended no matter what advertisement is up. In fact, those who built the subways were offended by the mere presence of ads. Here, the MTA has a First Amendment obligation to accept the ads. As long as any religious group is allowed to advertise, including atheist groups, all religious groups must be allowed to advertise. Of course, the authority could bar religious advertisements altogether, but in a time of crushing debt, cutting off a revenue stream seems to be a bad idea whether someone’s feelings get hurt in the process or not.

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AK July 19, 2010 - 3:31 pm

I’d add that in addition to losing a potential revenue stream, this kind of censorship would be bad for public discourse. I, for one, applaud MTA’s unusual lack of censorship. Indeed, the Authority even allows political ads on its buses/subways (Bloomberg ran ads with his campaign logo in 2009), while most other transit systems do not (pursuant to Lehman v. Shaker Heights, 418 U.S. 298 (1974)).

AlexB July 19, 2010 - 3:55 pm

I’m not sure you do have to do all or nothing. It’s one thing to talk about religion, it’s another to be inflammatory or offensive. There’s a difference between asking someone to come to your church versus calling islam a violent religion.

SEAN July 19, 2010 - 4:09 pm

well said. However I rather not see any faith based ads of any type on a transit system. That’s just me.

AK July 19, 2010 - 4:23 pm

While most would likely agree with your reasoning, AlexB, the jurisprudential world of the First Amendment would not be nearly as forgiving of such a discretionary regime.

AlexB July 19, 2010 - 8:24 pm

I don’t think that’s true. There are all sorts of things that are illegal to say or do. You can’t incite a riot, scream “fire” in a packed theater, slander someone, etc.

AK July 19, 2010 - 11:24 pm

I won’t cite credentials like others here, but trust me, it’s true. It would be exceedingly difficult for MTA to say OK to certain religious ads but not others than implicitly or explicitly refute other faiths. As Ben noted in the blog post, it’s generally an all or nothing test (see Lehman v. Shaker Heights, 418 U.S. 298 (1974)). There are always exceptions, but all things equal, the MTA could not pick and choose certain religious messages over others.

Phil July 19, 2010 - 5:33 pm

I’d have thought that because the MTA is public/government-run it wasn’t allowed to carry religious adverts at all.

AK July 19, 2010 - 11:26 pm

Many think that should be the case, but where the state acts as property-owner/advertiser and the advertisements are clearly not “government speech” (i.e. message endorsed by the State), then they are allowed to sell ad space to religious organizations, like any other non-profit, without running into Establishment Clause problems.

Alon Levy July 19, 2010 - 6:25 pm

In Canada, there’s an ad campaign on buses saying, “There’s probably no god.” If the Canadians agreed to that, New York can agree to Muslim ads.

ferryboi July 20, 2010 - 8:39 am

A few years back some NYC Transit employee was posting handwritten anti-gay messages on many Staten Island buses. I surmised it was likely a bus cleaner because all the messages had the same handwritting and quoted the Bible incessantly. There were literally dozens of buses that had these messages, so it had to be someone with access to many empty buses. The buses themselves were filthy, which showed that the “cleaner” was too busy quoting the Bible to actually clean the buses. I wrote the MTA and the Staten Island Advance. Not sure if that prompted any action, but the buses are somewhat cleaner today and no anti-gay crap has been posted recently.

That being said, if someone wants to pay for a religious, non-insulting advertisement, then I say let them.

Al D July 20, 2010 - 8:50 am

And what about the bikini clad vodka ads? Should they not be run (as is the case in South Williamsburg?) This pc’ness is getting ridiculous…


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