| SAN FRANCISCO, March 11
SAN FRANCISCO, March 11 San Francisco city buses
began carrying political ads on Monday denounced by several
municipal leaders as anti-Islamic, racist messages that unfairly
depict Arabs and Muslims as groups defined by extremism and
But rather than seek to bar San Francisco's transit agency
from accepting the paid ads and risk a court fight over free
speech rights, city officials said they would instead mount a
public service campaign preaching tolerance and peace.
The bus ads were paid for by the American Freedom Defense
Initiative (AFDI), the same group behind a similar campaign in
San Francisco and New York last year that referred to the
Arab-Israeli conflict as a war "between the civilized man and
"Support the civilized man," those adds implored. "Support
Israel. Defeat Jihad."
The founder of AFDI, Pamela Geller, is a New York-based
blogger and commentator whom the Southern Poverty Law Center,
which tracks U.S. hate groups, describes as "the anti-Muslim
movement's most visible and flamboyant figurehead."
The latest series of ads, posted on San Francisco's
so-called Muni buses, picture such figures as al Qaeda leader
Osama bin Laden and convicted Times Square would-be car bomber
Faisal Shahzad with quotes that essentially equate the Islamic
concept of jihad, or holy struggle, with militant violence.
Geller, who spoke by telephone with Reuters, defended her
ads, denying they were motivated by bigotry.
"Truth is hate now?" she asked. "My point is to raise
awareness of the greatest threat that this nation and that
freedom lovers face. The purpose of our ads is to show the
reality of jihad and the root causes of terrorism from the words
of jihadists themselves."
PARALLELS DRAWN TO ANTI-SEMITISM
But Scott Wiener, a member of San Francisco's Board of
Supervisors who described himself as the city's only elected
Jewish official, said the AFDI was engaged in the same type of
vilification long found in anti-Semitic tracts.
"The history of the Jewish people is the history of
stereotyping and caricature," he said. "We as a community have
to stand arm in arm against this awful message," he told a news
conference at City Hall.
Some critics of the ads say a case could be made for the
city to refuse to carry such messages on its buses on the
grounds they violate the Metropolitan Transportation Agency
policy against running "false, misleading or deceptive"
But MTA spokesman Paul Rose said doing so would likely
embroil the financially beleaguered agency in a costly and
possibly futile legal fight.
A federal court last year ruled that AFDI's "civilized man
and the savage" messages were constitutionally protected forms
of speech, forcing New York City's transit authority to carry
"While some courts have found that these ads may have First
Amendment privilege, that doesn't mean we can't condemn them,"
said San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, a
former civil rights lawyer.
District Attorney George Gascon added, "We're here to send a
clear message that San Francisco won't tolerate Islamophobic
The transit agency plans to counter the AFDI ads with public
service messages from its own "peace campaign," featuring
expressions of respect and tolerance from the likes of the
13th-century Persian poet Rumi and former South African
President Nelson Mandela.
Rose said the peace campaign posters would run on 100 of
Muni system's fleet of 800 buses, compared with 10 buses for
which AFDI paid about $5,000 to carry its ads.
Moreover, Chiu said he would seek Board of Supervisors
approval for a bill to earmark the $5,000 from Geller's group to
pay for a study of the effect of discrimination against Arab and
Muslim communities since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.
Some people, however, remain worried that AFDI's messages
are helping to foster a climate of intolerance while leaving
Arabs and Muslims, particularly young people, feeling
"We are really concerned that Arab and Muslim children have
to ride these buses," said Zahra Billoo, executive director of
the Council on American-Islamic Relations in the San Francisco
Bay Area. "What is the trickle-down effect on our schoolyards of
the hate messaging that's polluting our public transit?"
(Reporting by Ronnie Cohen; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by
Cynthia Johnston and Paul Simao)