When it comes to advertising on the D.C. metro, free speech is in for a bumpy ride. In a classic case of viewpoint discrimination, a federal judge is siding with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) for turning down ad space to the Catholic Church. WMATA defended the move by saying it bans “religious, political, or advocacy” messages (depending on who’s defining them, apparently, since the Human Rights Campaign still enjoys a prominent space in the subway’s line-up).
Even so, the Archdiocese of Washington complains, nothing about their message was overtly spiritual. The scene is three wise men, two sheep, and a sky of stars with the words “Find the perfect gift” in the center. As a spokesman for the church complained, “The advertisement does not seek to address a general, otherwise permissible topic from a religious perspective. The sole purpose of directing the public to FindThePerfectGift.org is to promote religion [there].”
Interestingly enough, the city’s policy was adopted to stop an ongoing debate about Islam from taking place on WMATA’s posters. But in stopping Muslim speech, it silenced everyone else’s. The censorship has gone so far that an unlikely alliance has already formed between groups like the Archdiocese, ACLU, PETA, and even a local abortion clinic, who all insist that D.C. officials have gone too far.
Metro’s guidelines are “establish[ing] a regime that is hostile to religion,” Catholic officials protest. Besides, the Archdiocese argues, where do you draw the line between what’s “religious” and what isn’t? If metro allows posters for the Salvation Army or a yoga studio, which both have religious overtones, what’s the problem with a Christmas scene?
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Still, Judge Amy Berman Jackson insists the city is well within its rights. “The regulation is reasonably aligned with WMATA’s duty to provide safe, reliable transportation, and it does not violate the First Amendment.” Which Constitution is she reading? Of course it does. In a broad net like this, everyone’s rights get trampled. Like most people, I think it’s dangerous to limit expression. We shouldn’t be afraid of open debate, especially on something as harmless as Christmas.
“We should be especially wary of the government restrictions on one’s viewpoint,” FRC’s Travis Weber warns. They are the most dangerous at their core and go to the heart of why we have the First Amendment. In ruling for WMATA here, the court let the government rely on administrative convenience and the avoidance of controversy as a legitimate basis to exclude ads… But suppressing a message for fear of the response is the essence of the heckler’s veto, and is no way for a free country to act. If, for no other reason, this is perhaps why the courts should be inclined to rule for the Archdiocese and be loath to affirm any policy which could be used to justify views the government doesn’t like.”
Conservatives don’t have to fear the lies because we have the truth. But how do you defeat a lie if you can’t speak the truth? Unless WMATA changes its policy, I guess we’re about to find out.
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