Anti-Islam advertisements shock city

Claire Fahy

Long regarded one of the most liberal and open-minded cities in the world, San Francisco has found itself engulfed in controversy with anti-Islam ads parading around the city, plastered on the sides of Muni buses.

The ads are funded by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an organization deemed a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, District Attorney George Gascón and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu have each come forward to denounce the content of the “Islamophobic” ads.

“Our position is that it is hate speech,” Stephanie Ong Stillman, the communications director at the district attorney’s office, said. “It is insinuating all Arabs and Muslims are terrorists and dehumanizes a community very valued here in San Francisco.”

The San Francisco Municipal Transport Agency has decided to spend the entire $5,000 revenue from the ads on researching hate speech and its effects on the Muslim community, a decision that angers AFDI founder Pamela Geller.

“I’m going to sue the city because (donating the money) is a violation of the establishment clause, shows preferential treatment towards a particular religious group, (and) it shows a special accommodation,” Geller, who failed to respond after consenting to an interview via e-mail, said in an interview with Sun TV published on her website.

Muni decided against pulling the ad campaign to save thousands of taxpayer dollars to fund the potential court case.

“They have to run them,” Stillman said. “If not, the group could sue them because they’re protected under free speech.”

Some Muni drivers say they feel uncomfortable with the ads in their workplace.

“If I get a bus with an ad on it, I say no,” a Muni bus driver, who requested anonymity based on the controversial nature of the topic, said.

San Francisco is not the only target of Geller’s campaign. New York City officials’ attempted to pull the ads from subway trains was thwarted after AFDI sued citing First Amendment rights, according to Stillman. In lieu of a court case, San Francisco officials are working to prevent further prejudice.

“What we in the district attorney’s office are trying to do is to educate the community,” Stillman said. “This is hate speech. Hate has no place in San Francisco.”

In the next few weeks a second round of AFDI-sponsored ads are scheduled to appear, focusing on homosexuality and bearing messages such as a quote from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that reads, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.”

“Our respect for free speech does not mean we allow hateful speech to go unchallenged,” Chiu said during a press conference. “As a former civil rights attorney, I’m proud to stand with our Muslim American families to send a message that San Francisco embraces diversity and tolerance, not hate and bigotry.”