An effort to promote diversity on the side of a bus should not turn into a controversy. Yet the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority has denied an advertisement sponsored by the Florida Council on American-Islamic Relations in support of diversity. HART should reconsider infringing upon free speech and its shaky legal standing.
The HART board voted 8-2 to reject the advertisement, which simply featured CAIR’s name and the phrase: “Embracing Diversity at Work, Defending Civil Rights in The Community.” Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez and Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe defended their votes to reject the ad by arguing HART has a long-standing policy against accepting advertising from religious groups, citing the word “Islamic” in the group’s name. That’s a bad policy, particularly when the message is benign.
CAIR is primarily a nonprofit civil rights organization that challenges wide-ranging negative stereotypes of Islam, which all too often leads to discriminatory treatment of Muslims. By rejecting CAIR’s advertisement, the HART board has engaged in the very discrimination CAIR wants to combat.
The board’s decision went against the staff recommendations to accept the ad and came as its legal counsel said it could face a legal challenge because of the broad policy regardless of what it decided about an advertisement that promotes a message of diversity and civil rights. The HART board should reverse its decision and change its policy.