After Ten Years, Court Strikes Down Ruling Banning Ads Offering Help to Those Leaving Islam
It took nearly twelve years, but we did it. My organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), has just won an important victory for the freedom of speech.
Back in 2009, the Detroit area's SMART transit refused to run our AFDI ads offering help to people who were in fear for their lives for wanting to leave Islam or having left it. After an incredibly protracted court battle, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals just stood up for the First Amendment and completely reversed the judgment banning our ads. It's a total victory for freedom: we won our free speech lawsuit in Detroit by a unanimous decision.
Our ad read: "Leaving Islam? Fatwa on your head? Is your family or community threatening you? Got Questions? Get Answers! RefugefromIslam.com." That's all it said. It offered a life-saver for those who were completely and utterly alone with no system of support or help.
Islamic law mandates death for those who leave Islam; even in the United States, those who leave the religion live in fear that a devout Muslim might decide to apply this penalty. So we were offering help. That is all. But as Eugene Volokh explains at The Volokh Conspiracy, "Michigan's Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) rejected this ad under two of its speech restrictions. The first prohibits 'political' ads; the second prohibits ads that would hold up a group of people to 'scorn or ridicule.'"
Our ad was not political and didn't scorn or ridicule anyone. It's ridiculous to say saving lives is a political act, and so of course we won the initial case. The first judge who ruled on this case, Judge Denise Page Hood, understood the law and so ruled in favor of our free speech rights. She understood the First Amendment. Therefore, although she was clearly not sympathetic to us, she had to rule for us.
But then SMART appealed. SMART adamantly refused to run outreach ads that might have helped Muslims living in dangerous households and appealed to the notoriously leftist Sixth Circuit. You might have thought the Muslim Brotherhood was running SMART. It was astounding. And consider the fact that Detroit was bankrupt around this same time. Sharia adherence was still more important to the broken city's failed leaders than were the freedom of speech and fiscal responsibility.
And so SMART continued to refuse our ads and appealed in the notoriously leftist Sixth Circuit. The court called our religious ads political and created a new narrative out of whole cloth. Our ads were never actually rejected on political grounds. Individually and in her official capacity, Beth Gibbons, marketing program manager of SMART, said our ads were rejected because they were controversial — not because they were political. It was always understood that these were religious ads. Gibbons testified that she saw "nothing about [the advertisement] itself that was political[.] ... I knew that [the fatwa advertisement] was of concern in that there is controversy on both sides of the issue on whether they should be posted." That was the position of SMART. In fact, that was the agency's official testimony.
We in turn appealed. In 2013, I was deposed and harassed for six hours by a small, profane blowhard attorney — all billable hours to fight an ad created to help Muslim girls escape honor violence. And the deposition was so hostile that you would think I had committed a heinous crime. Apparently, blasphemy in America is.
The case dragged on and on. But now, in American Freedom Defensive Initiative v. Suburban Mobility Auth. for Regional Transp. (6th Cir.), the court makes the correct ruling, noting that "the Free Speech Clause limits the government's power to regulate speech on public property. The government has little leeway to restrict speech in 'public forums.'" Accordingly, "SMART's ban on 'political' ads is unreasonable for the same reason that a state's ban on 'political' apparel at polling places is unreasonable: SMART offers no 'sensible basis for distinguishing what may come in from what must stay out.' Likewise, SMART's ban on ads that engage in 'scorn or ridicule' is not viewpoint neutral for the same reason that a ban on trademarks that disparage people is not viewpoint neutral: For any group, 'an applicant may [display] a positive or benign [ad] but not a derogatory one.'" Consequently, the court declared: "We thus reverse the district court's decision rejecting the First Amendment challenge to these two restrictions."
This is all common-sensical and clear even to those with no legal training or experience, but it has taken an incredibly long time to get here. The American Freedom Law Center, whose ace lawyers David Yerushalmi and Robert Muise fought long and hard to win this case, noted: "AFDI's religious freedom advertisement was rejected even though SMART had no problem accepting and running an anti-religion ad sponsored by an atheist organization. That approved ad stated, 'Don't Believe in God? You are not alone.'" However, now "the Sixth Circuit ruled unanimously in favor of AFLC, finding that SMART's rejection of the ad was unreasonable and [a] viewpoint based in violation of the First Amendment. This is a final ruling."
Bottom line: Everyone has the same right to a free life. The Sixth Circuit agreed.
If you weren't reading this, you would likely never know that it had happened at all. No media covered it. If we had lost, then you would have heard about it, because the media would have been popping open bottles of champagne and running huge pieces on how sharia restrictions on speech are altogether reasonable — as heads roll (literally).
Jessica Mokdad, an honor killing victim living in that area at the time, might have been saved. We know that the ads have helped Muslims — they told us. The ads save lives. Contribute here.
Pamela Geller is the president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), publisher of The Geller Report, and author of the bestselling book FATWA: Hunted in America as well as The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration's War on America and Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.