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Judge: MTA policy violated 1st Amendment

A Manhattan federal judge on Friday ruled that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority violated the First Amendment by refusing to display a pro-Israel ad that the agency found "demeaning" to Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims.

The ad in question, which a pro-Israel advocacy group called American Freedom Defense Initiative wanted to display on buses, said: "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad."

U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer said the MTA was correct in concluding that the ad demeaned Israeli opponents as "savages," but said the agency's policy improperly discriminated between ads that chose different targets for demeaning language.

The policy, he said, banned attacks on nine characteristics -- race, color, religion, national origin, gender, ancestry, age, disability and sexual orientation -- but allowed demeaning of any other sort. It would allow ads saying "Lawyers are sleazebags," "Democrats are Communists," or "Blondes are bimbos," the judge said.

"By differentiating between which people or groups can and cannot be demeaned on the exterior of a city bus, MTA's no-demeaning standard . . . discriminates based on content," wrote Engelmayer. "The content discrimination embedded in MTA's no-demeaning standard applies to and among political speech, the speech most highly protected by the First Amendment."

The judge said the MTA was entitled to try to find another formula for keeping ads civil, which he called a "laudable" goal.

"Today's ruling . . . is intended to leave MTA the latitude to investigate and experiment with alternative mechanisms for using ad space on the exteriors of city buses productively, profitably, and constitutionally, while ensuring that this space is not used as a tool for disparagement and division," he wrote in the 35-page decision.

The MTA, in a statement, said it was reviewing the decision and "evaluating its existing advertising standards in light of the court's ruling."

Engelmayer stayed his order for 30 days to allow the agency time to appeal or revise its ad regulation.

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