Citing First Amendment concerns, BART today defended accepting an ad from the Institute for Historical Review, a known Holocaust-denying organization that has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The ad, which will be displayed on digital boards in San Francisco’s Montgomery and Powell BART stations through September, depicts a map of the world overlaid with the words “History Matters,” along with the name of the group.
BART spokesperson Alicia Trost said that as a governmental agency, BART cannot reject ads based solely on the identity of the advertiser. It can, however, refuse ads based on language and appearance, and since the ad in question contained no offensive imagery or text, Trost said, BART was obligated to accept it. BART did demand that the group remove its web address from the ad.
“They removed the URL, and at that point our hands were tied,” Trost said. “If they had used fighting words, that would be different, but they didn’t. The law is clear. We cannot deny this ad.”
She added that BART does not in any way endorse the ad or its message. The $6,000 ad buy was the first ever by the IHR.
Seth Brysk, S.F.-based regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said his organization had reached out to BART leadership “to make sure they were aware of the ad and the nature of the group, their background and their intentions. BART assured us they were aware of the group but they felt under their policies they were unable to reject [the ad]. We raised concerns that this ad is offensive, [and that it] promotes an organization which is trying to espouse extreme and offensive views that particularly target the Jewish community.”
Brysk noted the timing of the ad coinciding with the Jewish High Holidays.
According to its website, the Orange County-based IHR “works to promote peace, understanding and justice through greater public awareness of the past, and especially socially-politically relevant aspects of modern history.” The site notes that “Zionist groups such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League routinely smear the IHR.” It lists among its speakers “renowned historian” David Irving, the notorious Holocaust denier who unsuccessfully sued Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt for libel in a British court in 1996.
The home page also links to a conspiracy theory that Israel knew of the 9/11 attack in advance, and to a lecture by IHR director Mark Weber discussing “Hitler’s place in history,” stating, “a balanced or objective portrayal of Hitler is nearly impossible in today’s America… the portrayal of Hitler and his regime is grotesquely unbalanced, not only in the US mass media, but even in supposedly authoritative history books and reference works.”
While Jewish Community Relations Council executive director Abby Porth agreed that BART would likely have lost a First Amendment court challenge if it had rejected IHR’s ad, she noted that just because “a hate group is entitled to free speech does not render BART voiceless or without a viewpoint.”
“Today it is more important than ever that a large regional transportation entity like BART speaks up. BART has many options,” Porth continued. “While it accepts these paid advertisements, it can attach its own ad next to these hateful ads that says that these do not reflect BART’s views, nor do they reflect scholarship or history. BART could give the proceeds of these ads to Holocaust education. BART could inform its riders of their distaste for these ads and their commitment to free speech. We encourage BART to recognize that at this moment in our nation’s history, standing up for free speech shouldn’t come at the expense of standing up for truth.”
Brysk said the ADL, too, will keep up the pressure on BART.
“We’re going to see if BART can be convinced that even under their own policies this is a violation,” he said. “In the past we had offensive ads on Muni, and in that case Muni took it upon themselves to put out counter-messaging. That’s an option available to BART. It’s also possible to change their policies to prevent these sorts of things in the future, while making sure to protect the First Amendment.”