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Major U.S. county pays up for censoring 'anti-Muslim' ads

Seattle (courtesy Pixabay)

King County, Washington, the home to Seattle, has paid a hefty price for censoring the ads that run on its transit system’s buses, writing a check to the American Freedom Law Center for $200,000 to cover the attorneys’ fees for a lawsuit brought by Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, and their organization.

The resolution to the case came shortly after a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave thumbs down to King County’s censorship of an ad called “Faces of Global Terrorism.”

The years-long lawsuit is over an ad based on an image created by the State Department that previously was run on county buses in the Seattle area.

The ad was submitted to King County Metro Transit by Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and their organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

It first was rejected on a long list of grounds, including that some of its statements were inaccurate.

The statements were corrected, but King County Metro Transit still rejected it on the grounds that it disparaged some people and might disrupt the system.

Those are both lofty ideals, but unconstitutional in this case, the court ruled.

“We conclude that Metro’s disparagement standard discriminates, on its face, on the basis of viewpoint,” the panel explained. The ruling said Metro requires the refusal of ads that disparage people, but “giving offense is a viewpoint, so Metro’s disparagement clause discriminates.”

As for the disruption?

The transit system previously had run the largely similar ad presented by the State Department, with no ill effects.

“It is settled law that, in a nonpublic forum, regulations must be reasonable and viewpoint neutral,” the court said. “Government violates the First Amendment when it denies access to a speaker solely to suppress the point of view he espouses on an otherwise includible subject.”

The lawsuit was filed by the American Freedom Law Center in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington at Seattle on behalf of Geller, Spencer and AFDI.

Officials with the AFLC Wednesday revealed the costly result of the campaign for King County.

The $200,000 was for the lawyers to represent Geller and Spencer in their constitutional rights case.

Robert Muise, AFLC co-founder, said, “When the government restricts speech based on a claim that it is demeaning or disparaging to Muslims, not only will the government lose in court on First Amendment grounds, but it will pay for its unlawful actions.”

His partner in the organization, David Yerushalmi, added, “It is clear from the record and the Ninth Circuit’s decision that King County is suffering from the debilitating disease of political correctness, which, as this case demonstrates, can be costly. And this is just the latest example of AFLC’s success. So long as government officials continue with their censorship, we will make them pay.”

AFLC has represented Geller and Spencer successfully in similar fights in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. In Chicago, the transit authority initially refused to run an AFDI “anti-jihad” ad, only to capitulate after stating in a letter that while transit authority officials considered the ad “morally reprehensible,” they were aware of AFLC’s successful litigation.

The ad at issue was modeled after an advertisement submitted by the federal government and accepted for display by the county in 2013. The State Department ad depicted the “Faces of Global Terrorism” in an effort to “stop a terrorist” and “save lives.” The advertisement offered an “up to $25 million reward” for helping to capture one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists.

The terrorists in the ad were found on the FBI’s most wanted global terrorists list.

At the time, the list included pictures and “wanted posters” for 32 terrorists. Of the 32 listed terrorists, 30 were individuals with Muslim names or were wanted for terrorism related to organizations conducting terrorist acts in the name of Islam.

When the government ended its ad, Geller, Spencer and their organization resubmitted the image and message.