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SEPTA, In Federal Court, Defends Decision Not To Run Anti-Islam Bus Ads

By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- A federal judge today heard evidence on whether Septa, the local mass transit agency, violated the First Amendment to the Constitution when it refused to run some anti-Islamic advertising cards on its buses.

"We're not a public forum," says Gino Benedetti, general counsel for Septa.  He says he made the final decision to block the ads, featuring Adolf Hitler sitting next to Haj Amin al-Husseini and the phrase "Islamic Jew-Hatered is in the Quaran" in bold letters.

Septa lawyers argue that the agency does not allow public-issue advertisements on its properties and says a look back at the ads run over the past three years proves it -- although Benedetti acknowledges that Septa used to accept or reject ads on a case-by-case basis.

"Fifty-three hundred (series of) ads ran -- less than one percent were public issue," he says.

Robert Muise represents the plaintiff, American Freedom Defense Initiative, which has successfully sued other transit agencies, forcing them to run the anti-Muslim ads.  The group claims that Septa's refusal to run their ads last May was illegal censorship, claiming that the agency even changed its policy after AFDI filed suit.

"When you read that modified policy, it's clear they were trying to do so to prevent our clients from running an advertisement," Muise says, "so the fact is that this is content-based.  It is the most egregious form of discrimination under the First Amendment, and we should win as a matter of law."

The new Septa policy makes it more clear that public-issue advertising is prohibited.

Muise told the judge today that AFDI wanted to run ads on roughly 50 Septa buses over the course of a month.  They've asked the judge to issue an order forcing Septa to run the ads despite the new policy.

The judge could make a final decision in a matter of weeks.

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