Reason | Can violence in the Middle East justify censorship in the U.S.?

“In any war between the civilized man and the savage,” says the ad,  “support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.”

On September 6, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) signed a contract to buy space for this message from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which had concluded that the First Amendment required it to accept the controversial ad. Less than two weeks later, WMATA declared that AFDI’s advocacy was not constitutionally protected after all, pointing to violent Middle Eastern protests blamed on Innocence of Muslims, an online video mocking the prophet Muhammad.

The idea that riots in other countries justify censorship in the U.S. represents a new form of heckler’s veto, making freedom of speech contingent on the predicted responses of the touchiest listeners anywhere in the world. Such a policy is dangerous to freedom of expression, providing a license to suppress speech deemed provocative, and to public safety, encouraging violence aimed at eliminating offensive messages.


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