With a New M.T.A. Ad Policy, Thinking About the First Amendment

Should you wish to place an advertisement in the subways or on buses, there are a few things you need to know.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

The ad must not be “false, misleading or deceptive.” So says the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in its guidelines, and who can argue with that? The material also must not promote “unlawful or illegal goods, services or activities.” Fair enough.

Tobacco products are out of the question. No surprise there. So are images of minors in sexually suggestive clothes or poses. Quite right. And don’t even think about an ad that features “sexual or excretory activities” shown in “a patently offensive manner.” Makes you wonder if it’s possible to show “excretory activities” in a patently inoffensive manner.

There are other prohibitions, one of which was newly codified by the transportation authority’s board just the other day. It bans ads that “the M.T.A. reasonably foresees would imminently incite or provoke violence or other immediate breach of the peace, and so harm, disrupt or interfere with safe, efficient and orderly transportation operations.”

This rule has potential trouble written all over it.

It has already come under fire from tabloid editorialists, who raise a reasonable First Amendment question that is probably being asked by other New Yorkers as well:

Has the authority effectively handed veto power over free expression to any extremist who threatens to bomb a subway station or set fire to a bus because he or she or can’t abide the message on a poster?

The authority isn’t eager for a public discussion of what sort of ad might qualify as creating an imminent threat. For that matter, it doesn’t offer a definition of violence or of breach of the peace, terms that can encompass broad ranges of action. Does mere yelling breach the peace? Some might say yes.

Still, it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what could cross a red line, to use an expression that is in vogue in a different context. Almost certain to be rejected as incendiary would be an ad deemed to mock Muhammad, like the Danish cartoons that sparked riots in the Islamic world. But wouldn’t that amount to blatant caving in to threats, even if in the name of promoting civil discourse?

“We believe that we’ve always had the power to withhold advertisements which in the judgment of our security professionals would present an imminent threat of violence,” Adam Lisberg, an authority spokesman, said on Monday. All that the newly adopted rule does is “make it explicit,” he said.

Banning a particular ad is “not something the M.T.A. would ever undertake lightly,” Mr. Lisberg added. “It would be done in consultation with our security professionals when they would foresee an actual risk of physical violence, not merely the threat of vandalism.”

Vandalism is what happened last week to subway posters that called on people to “support the civilized man” over “the savage” — to “support Israel” and “defeat jihad.” Those words went up after a federal judge ruled over the summer that the transit agency had run afoul of the First Amendment when it rejected the ads as violating its ban on messages that “demean” individuals or groups.

So last Thursday the authority’s board scrapped the “demean” rule. Instead, it adopted the imminent-threat-of-violence standard.

You have to wonder why transit officials don’t reject these noncommercial “issue ads” altogether, and stick to less nettlesome dollars-and-cents messages hawking new movies and negligence lawyers. Advertising of all types, the authority says, covers about 1 percent of its annual budget of roughly $13 billion. Issue ads provide about 1 percent of that 1 percent. That comes to $1.3 million, a drop in the bucket. The authority runs through that in less than an hour.

If it wished, the authority said the other day, it could confine itself to commercial ads and avoid First Amendment agita. But that would be too limiting, it said. It preferred to adhere to a policy of permitting advertisements that “express views on a wide range of public matters.”

But the price of accepting subway placards with generally noncontroversial messages – say, an appeal for blood donations – is having also to put up with something like a “savage” poster, no matter how much it is bound to offend some people. That, almost by definition, is a recipe for trouble.

The authority no doubt wishes that such irksome ads would disappear. It’s not interested in making waves, and that’s perfectly understandable. It’s in the business of a running a railroad safely, not arguing the world. What’s far from clear, though, is whether all it has done with this new imminent-threat rule is replace one constitutionally suspect guideline with another.


E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]

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A Dead Smartphone Underground and a Connection to Make

Dear Diary:

It’s about 5 a.m. in Brooklyn, and my first day on the job starts at 9:30. I can’t sleep. Why not take the subway and see how long it’ll take, you know, just in case? In minutes I’m showered, dressed and making my way down President Street.

The 4 is out of service. Blast. I hop the 3 to Barclays Center. The cab is dead and the passengers are mute. It’s raining outside. I keep glancing at the map, making sure I keep note of the stops, as my smartphone is lifeless and I’m disconnected.

When we arrive at Barclays, several passengers and I hurry to the middle track, where we await the 4. Within minutes it approaches, on the wrong track. Scatter.

Several of us rush down the stairs, telling passers-by of the mishap and to follow quickly. One trips; some double back to help. Others take long, double-step strides to reach the departing train. “Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”

There’s one laggard, a nurse. I reach out to hold the door open against the signs that say not to. She boards the train safely. My phone’s still dead, but we are all most certainly still connected.


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Brooklyn Transformed, for Better or Worse?

Residents celebrated and demonstrated, made noise and complained about noise, raised a glass to Brooklyn’s pulsing addition and, in some cases, kept on raising glasses into the early morning.

But for all the dueling ambitions of those who gathered Friday for the Barclays Center’s opening night, one goal was common: to form a first impression of the city’s newest nerve center up close, beneath the weathered steel that has been termed both an architectural wonder and, in the words of one passer-by Friday afternoon, “the ugliest thing I ever saw.”

Would the arena’s opening event, the first in a series of concerts by the hip-hop star Jay-Z, snarl traffic as many predicted? Would the streets fill with drunken revelers? Would anyone ever again be able to walk three blocks along Atlantic Avenue without seeing a hat or T-shirt supporting the Brooklyn Nets?

Skeptics and believers could all find support in Friday’s early returns.

Here was a procession of well-coiffed ticket-holders — thick heels and leopard-print flats, T-shirts emblazoned with Jay-Z’s face and sneakers so white they appeared to have been bought on the way in the door.

And there was a man, stumbling along Flatbush Avenue, slurring deliriously as an officer led him into the backseat of a taxicab, pushing his head through the doorway as he might for a common criminal.

Watts Hopkins, 55, distributed light-up sunglasses to passing concertgoers. “We’re ushering in a new era of entertainment for Brooklyn,” Mr. Hopkins said, as his partner hawked a flashing bow tie.

Bars and restaurants kept their doors open well into Saturday morning, ensuring that wayfarers in Nets regalia would have a place to continue the preseason party.

But at least one establishment seemed immune to the appeal of the neighborhood’s unofficial new logo: Beacon’s Closet, a clothing exchange store near Fifth Avenue and Prospect Place.

Tiffany Collings, the store’s manager, was asked if the business would ever carry the team’s apparel. “Only when it becomes vintage,” she said. “We’ve got 40 years.”

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Arrest Made in Robberies Using Hypodermic Needle

The police said Monday that they had arrested a Bronx man in connection with a spate of holdups in which a robber wielded a hypodermic needle to frighten victims into giving up their electronic devices and other property.

The man, Angel Cintron, 39, of West Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx, was taken into custody without incident around noon in the Getty Square neighborhood of Yonkers, the police there said.

The New York City police said the man had been tied to at least eight daytime robberies around the Bronx stretching back to August. Last week, they identified Mr. Cintron as a suspect in the case.

Mr. Cintron was charged with robbery and criminal possession of a weapon.

In most of the robberies, a hypodermic needle with a syringe was used to threaten young men into handing over their belongings. It was not clear if the man claimed that anything specific was in the syringe.

Five of the robberies occurred on one day in September.

During the Friday morning rush on Sept. 14, the police said, the suspect snatched an iPod from a 31-year-old man. Less than an hour later, and one block away along East Tremont Avenue, he took a cellphone from a 14-year-old boy after brandishing the hypodermic needle, the police said. Roughly 10 minutes later, an iPad was taken from a male victim a short walk away.

The suspect then tried talking with a 17-year-old on board a bus before taking out a knife and trying to rob the teenager, who managed to escape, the police said. At 6 p.m. the same day, the police said, the suspect threatened a teenager and made off with his iPod.

The Daily News reported that a robbery on Saturday morning using a hypodermic needle may be tied to the same suspect.

Since the beginning of the year, the police said, more than 11,000 Apple products have been reported stolen, an increase of 40 percent over last year. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said last month that such thefts “drove the spike in robberies and larceny” this year.

The image of a needle wielded as a deadly weapon recalled past instances. In 1988, a man claiming to have AIDS held a needle to a woman’s neck and robbed her of jewelry. The police said at the time that the man did not appear to have the disease.

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