Last year a mini-controversy erupted when CAIR, the Council for American-Islamic Relations, wanted to run an ad on Hillsborough buses as part of the Council's "My Jihad" campaign in August. The Hillsborough County Area Regional Transit Authority board initially rejected the ad, saying that it would violate its policies on promoting any religion. CAIR officials met with HART's board and argued that they were in fact a civil rights group, not an Islamic organization, and then submitted a much less controversial ad that read, "CAIR FLORIDA: Embracing Diversity at Work, Defending Civil Rights in the Community." HART agreed to run that ad.
Throughout CAIR's effort, critics (such as vocal anti-Muslim activist Terry Kemple) contended that CAIR is not a mainstream organization, and that HART should have nothing to do with them.
Today HART's attorney, David Smith, told board members that they may now face a lawsuit from a group that started running its own bus ads to answer CAIR's "My Jihad" campaign.
The ads come from conservative activist's Pamela Geller's American Freedom Defense Initiative (ADFI), an anti-Muslim group that submitted eight separate ads to run on HART buses in the fall. Smith said that HART has agreed to run one of the ads, but that the agency may face litigation anyway from the group.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative has run ads on buses in other major cities such as San Francisco, but other transit authorities, such as in New York City and Boston, have rejected them.
The ad rejected by the Boston Transit Authority said, "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man." Then, between two Stars of David, the copy read: “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”
The same ad was rejected by New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority in 2012, but the ADFI sued and won, with a judge ruling that the ads should be "afforded the highest level of protection under the First Amendment."
Smith was somewhat tight-lipped in speaking to the board about HART's discussions with ADFI. "Candidly, they will file a lawsuit," he predicted before saying that he would be speaking in private with HART's newly elected chairman, Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez.
When the ads ran last year on San Francisco's MUNI buses, that agency donated all the proceeds from their sale to the city's Human Rights Commission. It also ran its own series, on the other side of the buses, distancing itself from any anti-Islamic sentiment.
In late September the ADFI issued a press release announcing it was launching a public service bus ad campaign in Tampa "to offer help for girls in danger of honor killing and to warn about the Hamas-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which is active in the Tampa area."
Hassan Shibly, the executive director of CAIR-Florida, told CL that he had been aware that the ADFI had submitted ads, but did not know that HART had accepted one of them until informed by a reporter. He thought the agency might be opening itself up to a double standard, possibly enabling CAIR to resubmit its "My Jihad" ad.
"I think they're well known to buy very outrageous, hateful advertising attacking the Muslim faith and the Muslim community," Shibly said about the ADFI. "Generally in this country people have a freedom and a right to promote hatred and xenophobia, but it doesn't make that the right thing to do. And I think that in the marketplace of ideas let the people judge for themselves whether or not they want to side with those who are promoting fear and hatred, or those that are promoting tolerance and unity and understanding."
CL has reached out to Pamela Geller with the ADFI, and we'll update this blog post when and if she responds.