An ad appearing in state newspapers comparing an abortion referendum to the Taliban has drawn criticism from both sides of the abortion debate, been called "offensive" by Nashville civil rights advocates — and gotten the attention of the state's top ethics and campaign finance official, who said the organization behind the ad has run afoul of state election rules by failing to register.
Tennesseans for Preservation of Personal Privacy bought full-page or nearly full-page ads in the state's four largest newspapers, including The Tennessean, on Sunday.
Under the headline "Vote No on the Tennessee Taliban Amendment," the ad urges voters to vote against Amendment 1, a ballot measure that, if enacted, would give lawmakers more authority to pass abortion restrictions.
An illustration accompanied the ad in two newspapers — The Knoxville News Sentinel and The Chattanooga Times Free Press. The Tennessean and the Memphis Commercial Appeal declined to publish the illustration. It depicts a man whose head and face are nearly covered by a turban marked with the words "Tennessee legislature." He has a weapon at his hip and a round of ammunition around his waist, and in his hands is a scroll with the words "Amendment 1." He stands with one foot planted on the shoulder of a woman in a tank top and bare legs, looking helpless. "Tennessee women" is written on the woman's head.
"It shows an image of a man with a turban stepping on a woman as if a turban equates violence against women," said Remziya Suleyman, director of policy and administration for The American Center for Outreach, a Nashville-based Muslim education and advocacy organization. "Comparing the Tennessee legislature to the Taliban is absurd. What they don't realize is the image is offensive, unnecessary and violent. If we care about women, why use such scare tactics and demeaning images to get your message across?"
Michel Kaplan, an attorney for Tennesseans for Preservation of Personal Privacy, said the only goal of the ad was to educate voters about Amendment 1.
"No offense was ever intended to the Muslim community," Kaplan said. "The cartoon was the expression of the Taliban and Taliban's treatment of women, and the fear that there are those in the legislature who would like to control women's rights."
Kaplan declined to divulge more information about the organization, which was registered as a nonprofit organization April 17. Kaplan, an attorney who represents charitable groups and private foundations with the firm Sherrard & Roe, said he assisted a client in forming the organization, but declined to name the individual or how much money the organization raised, citing privacy.
State Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance Director Drew Rawlins said the group was required to register with the state before posting an ad urging voters to vote a specific way in an election but had not done so. Rawlins said the organization would be given five days to comply by registering.
Kaplan said the organization was exercising its right to free speech but noted that "to the extent we are required to comply, we will comply."
The ad seemingly succeeded in equally offending leaders on both sides of the abortion debate.
"I think the images are disturbing and offensive, and they don't have any place in this debate," said Jeff Teague, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee and a leader of the Vote No on One political campaign.
Yes On 1 spokeswoman Jennifer Hicks said: "It is unfortunate that pro-abortion opponents of Amendment 1 have chosen to open their campaign in such an offensive manner. Taliban rule relates to rape, slavery, murder and brutal degradation of women, not to social policy debates in the state of Tennessee. Those placing the ad should apologize to Tennesseans but especially to those refugees in our state who have been the victims of such cruel regimes."
The state's biggest newspaper publishers split on their decisions about whether to include the illustration. Laura Hollingsworth, president and publisher of The Tennessean, declined to publish the illustration, saying it "might have been viewed as insensitive and inflammatory."
Knoxville News Sentinel Publisher Patrick Birmingham ran the illustration. "Obviously it's a political debate and it's one group's opinion. You could say the illustration was over the top, but there was nothing objectionable about the ad. This is the business we are in."