Government Censorship on the Rise

Cities and counties across the U.S. are banning advertising about religion, politics, abortion, environmental causes — any topic that risks offending people. For example, Lackawanna County, Pa., is barring bus ads that promote atheism and claims it will reject ads that promote religion, too. New York, Philadelphia and Chicago are cracking down on political ads in mass transit.


Government bureaucrats don’t want the “distraction” of dealing with controversial ads. Too bad they don’t realize — or don’t care — that freedom requires hearing distasteful ideas. Half a century ago, as totalitarian governments gripped Eastern Europe and muzzled freedom fighters, George Orwell warned, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.”

On April 29, New York City’s transit authority voted to exclude political ads from buses, trains and platforms. Thomas F. Prendergast, transit chairman, defends it, saying controversial ads “have been a distraction” for the transit system. New York’s new rule was triggered by a federal court decision a week earlier ordering the transit authority to display a provocative ad smearing Islam as a religion that advocates killing Jews. No matter how offensive the ad is, the judge ruled, transit officials can’t pick and choose. To get around the ruling, transit officials banned all political ads.

Philadelphia is also stifling free speech. On March 30, Pamela Geller and her controversial anti-jihadist organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, won a federal court battle against transit officials there. The judge ordered transit officials to display Geller’s ad, which said, “Islamic Jew-hatred: It’s in the Quran.” To avoid complying, Philadelphia took the coward’s way out, just like New York, and banned all political ads.

The New York ban is formulated in an especially dangerous way. It permits commercial, public service and government ads, but not political ads. Government ads¬†are¬†political ads, whether New York officials admit it or not. “Government” is another word for the political winners. The rule silences political opposition. It prohibits any ad commenting on “the action, inaction, prospective action or policies of a government entity.” It’s a “status quo protection” rule.

These weasel words would let New York State run Start-Up NY ads claiming the state is business-friendly, but would bar critics from running adds claiming taxes are too high.

It sounds like what Orwell described in his famous novel on totalitarianism, “1984.” In it, government messages bombard the populace through loudspeakers everywhere, and there is no competing voice.

Unlike New York and Philadelphia, which are cracking down to avoid complying with court orders, Seattle and Boston authorities won their court battles against Geller. Federal courts in these two cities ruled that public officials can bar ads that are “degrading, offensive” or “demean or disparage” a group and might lead to public disorder or violence. That’s the sort of disagreement among federal appeals courts that makes a Supreme Court review almost inevitable.

Rabbi Marc Schneier and many other religious figures are urging the legal system to draw a clear line between free speech and hate speech and bar the latter so as not to arouse hatred or violence among “members of the American family.” Nonsense. We Americans have always squabbled about ideas and values. The more unpopular or hateful the idea the more protection it needs.

The Supreme Court will likely see it that way. Even though long ago, in 1974, the high court upheld the Shaker Heights, Ohio, bus system’s ban on political ads, that was an oddball case. Shaker Heights buses had always banned political ads. The deciding vote in the 5-4 ruling was cast by Justice William O. Douglas, who apparently had an ax to grind. Douglas rode a bus to and from court each day, and he disliked the fact that the bus’s audio ads interrupted his thoughts, according to Hofstra University law professor Leon Friedman. Douglas made his personal gripe crystal clear in his concurring opinion.

That was four decades ago. The current court is unlikely to tolerate banning political ads on buses and in other public places. The free exchange of ideas, including the freedom to criticize government, is the bedrock of liberty. That’s why our Bill of Rights says government shall make “no law” abridging it.

Betsy McCaughey is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and author of “Government by Choice: Inventing the United States Constitution.”

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