Posted inBurntCitrus Notebooks

how much does free speech cost?

Grand Central Terminal, 20 October 2012

I often pass by the advertisements in the New York Subway (which are now underwater) and barely pay attention.  Usually, it is something banal that doesn’t interest someone who doesn’t own a television.

However, recently, when walking through Grand Central Terminal to meet up with some friends for a day of coffee shop hopping and studying, I came across this battle.  One advertisement, paid for by the “American Freedom Defense Initiative” explicitly cites an on-going war, and implicitly calls Muslims savages.  To its side, there was the advertisement paid for by “United Methodist Women”—accusing its neighbouring ad of being uncivilised hate speech.

First, one should not be surprised to find out those (re)appropriated words were first spoken by Ayn Rand.  I could also go on about the usage of rhetoric that is reminiscent of “White Man’s Burden“, with a more explicit tone of hate, which speaks for itself.  But, there have already been things written regarding this.

At least for this post, I am most concerned by the fact that this case demonstrates that in order to express “free speech”, it requires that a party also have funding to effectively try to combat said speech (though I wouldn’t have chosen the lime green and small font—really?).

One woman, Mona Eltahawy, was arrested for dissenting against the American Freedom Defence Initiative poster.  She broke the law by defacing it.  Had she purchased competing ad space, there would have been no problem. Eltahawy, a Muslim and an activist, felt explicitly attacked by this ad—she felt as though had been targeted and was defending not only herself, but was attempting to voice dissent (whether you agree or disagree with either side is really beside the point).  In New York, defacing ads or posters, no matter the political message, can result in penalties.  Speech that is not backed by money is discouraged.

No matter how loud Eltahawy protested, she could not effectively combat those ads any other way, legally, without money that  could essentially guarantee speech (such as that provided by United Methodist women). Why is this? Because “free speech” is purchased, and is privileged when it is backed by wealth.

Are we okay with Freedom of Expression having a price tag? What is the price of Free Speech in the Subways of New York?  According to Grand Central’s website:

If I want to advertise in Grand Central, who would I contact?

Advertising in the rolling sign holders in Grand Central is limited only to Grand Central retailers. The ads you see on the walls and on the Main Concourse are run by CBS Outdoor and can be reached at (212) 297-6400 by asking for sales.

For all additional inquiries about retail and events at Grand Central Terminal, please contact