Mass Transit

New York Subway Bans Ads In Wake of Spraypaint Incident


Aim for the eyes, Mona!

New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority yesterday voted to prohibit advertisements that it "reasonably foresees would imminently incite or provoke violence or other immediate breach of the peace."

One day before the decision, journalist Mona Eltahawy made a partially successful attempt to spraypaint over an ad from a pro-Israel group. The MTA held its vote at a raucous meeting during which opponents of the ad shouted down speakers. The New York Times' Matt Flegenheimer reports

The 8-to-0 vote by the authority's board came three days after pro-Israel ads characterizing Islamist opponents of the Jewish state as being "savage" began appearing in subway stations, setting off vandalism, denunciations of the authority and calls for the ads' removal.

The authority had initially rejected the ads, citing their "demeaning" language. The group responsible for the ads, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, sued, and in July won a federal court ruling on First Amendment grounds.

Eltahawy was arrested in a high-profile tagging incident, which she hyped to an extent that led The Nation correspondent Jeremy Scahill to observe, "I think Nelson Mandela talked less about his 27 years in prison than Mona has about her 22 hours in a holding cell." 

It's unclear how the Authority intends to make neutral judgments about what content is likely to cause trouble. The rule may end up something like the policy Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus, which prohibits non-commercial ads, but even that policy is now the target of a lawsuit by the local AIDS Walk

Nor are strictly commercial ventures free of controversy in this age when chicken sandwich purchases encode positions on gay marriage, some cosmetics are still tested on animals, and teachers unions can bring out crowds of people with nothing better to do than protest a Hollywood movie. A transit authority is not a natural arbiter of such matters, but the real question should be what ad doesn't stand a reasonable chance of provoking a breach of the peace?