A lesson or two can be learned about freedom of speech – and its limits – from a recent anti-jihad ad campaign in America and the reactions it has received.

Last year, an organization called the American Freedom Defense Initiative – known for heading a campaign against an Islamic center near the World Trade Center site – requested to post ads in New York City subway stations.

“In any war between the civilized man and the savage,” read the ad, “support the civilized man; support Israel, defeat jihad.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority initially rejected the ad, citing its “demeaning” language. In response, AFDI head Pamela Geller sued, arguing that her organization’s right to freedom of speech was being trampled by the MTA.

In July, a federal court ruled in Geller’s favor, citing MTA’s violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The ads began appearing in 10 New York City subway stations on September 24. In the coming weeks, the ads will be expanded to New York City buses.

Geller won another suit last Friday, this time in Washington, DC. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had originally “deferred” placing the AFDI’s ads “out of a concern for public safety, given current world events.”

The Washington authority was referring to the violent and sometimes deadly riots that have swept across much of the Muslim world – including European cities with large Muslim populations – in protest against an amateurish American-made video mocking the prophet Muhammad.

But a US federal judge ruled Friday that the authority must place the ads by Monday.

Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the AFDI ad’s message, the court rulings mark a major victory for Western values – in this case the right to freedom of expression – in the face of a major onslaught by a particularly radical, intolerant and uncompromising expression of Islam.

Since the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1989 calling to murder author Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, there have been numerous attempts by Muslim extremists to use violence to intimidate the West, resulting in the limiting of freedom of speech.

Too often the news media, writers, academics and politicians adopt a tactic of selective self-censorship. While Christians, Jews and members of other religions can be openly criticized and lampooned, Muslims must be treated with special sensitivity.

Perhaps the biggest danger to freedom of speech today is the dynamic in which free individuals living in Western countries are cowed into silence for fear that potentially controversial statements – regardless of their veracity – are likely to whip large crowds of Muslim extremists into a violent fervor.

Why shouldn’t Muslims, like any other religious group, be expected to show tolerance – and a sense of humor – when their religion is criticized or lampooned? At the very least they should refrain from resorting to violence.

For those who believe the AFDI’s anti-jihad ad was unfair to Muslims, the proper response in an open society is not to attempt to stifle freedom of speech by preventing the ads from being placed. Rather, an alternative, competing view should be articulated that vies for support in the free market of ideas.

That’s precisely what Rabbis for Human Rights North America did. An ad that reads: “In the choice between love and hate, CHOOSE LOVE. Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors,” will be running alongside AFDI’s ads.

In contrast, Egyptian-American writer and activist Mona Eltahawy’s approach was all wrong. In a highly publicized stunt, Eltahawy spray-painted over one of AFDI’s anti-jihad ads on a New York subway station. Not only did she damage MTA property, she also used aggressive methods to cover up AFDI’s message – though she probably ended up increasing the ad’s media exposure.

Eltahaway, who as an American enjoys rights that women living in Arab countries can only dream of, came out on the side of those who would like to see freedom of expression curtailed.

AFDI’s anti-jihad ad might be distasteful to some. But it is precisely when a message is controversial that true freedom of expression is tested.

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