A pro-Israel advocacy group known for publicly criticizing Islam can display its political advertisement containing the phrase "Hamas Killing Jews" on New York City's buses, a judge said.
Judge John Koeltl said in a decision made public Tuesday that the advertisement is protected speech.
He said he was sensitive to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's claim that the ad could incite violence and appreciates the efforts necessary to prevent violent attacks.
But he noted that substantially the same advertisement ran in San Francisco and Chicago in 2013 without any problems. He added that examples of violent attacks cited by the MTA show that individuals may commit heinous acts without warning.
"Under the First Amendment, the fear of such spontaneous attacks, without more, cannot override individuals' rights to freedom of expression," Koeltl said in a ruling dated Monday. He stayed the effect of the decision for a month so it can be appealed.
MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said the agency is disappointed in the ruling and is reviewing its options.
It came in a lawsuit filed last year by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an organization headed by blogger Pamela Geller that's behind the advertisement.
David Yerushalmi, a lawyer for the organization, said the decision "sends a strong message both to government bureaucrats who would restrict our freedom of speech based upon what they perceive to be a global jihadist threat, and it also sends a telling message to our enemies abroad and at home: Their threats of violence will not prevent the courts from upholding the First Amendment."
The lawsuit said Geller's group buys the advertisements to express its message on current events and public issues "including issues such as Islam's hatred of Jews."
The lawsuit was filed after the MTA notified the group in August that it would display three of four proposed advertisements but not an ad with the quote "Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah" because it could incite violence. In the ad, a covered face is shown next to the quote, which is attributed to "Hamas MTV." It is followed by the words: "That's his Jihad. What's yours?"
In a September statement, the MTA said it recognized that the rejected ad was a parody of "MyJihad" ads sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which said it was promoting the concept that jihad is an individual and personal struggle rather than a violent conflict or terrorism.
Koeltl said he recognized that the MTA believes it would be far more difficult to counter the advertisement because it has parodic aspects.
But he said he believes the agency underestimates "the power of counter-advertisements to explain that the MTA does not endorse the ad and that the ad is not to be taken seriously."
Monica Klein, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, noted in a statement that the mayor has said "these anti-Islamic ads are outrageous, inflammatory and wrong, and have no place in New York City, or anywhere."
"These hateful messages serve only to divide and stigmatize when we should be coming together as one city," she added. "While those behind these ads only display their irresponsible intolerance, the rest of us who may be forced to view them can take comfort in the knowledge that we share a better, loftier and nobler view of humanity."