ACLU Sues Over Refusal to Accept Atheist Ad on Buses

The ACLU of Pennsylvania. led by the great Vic Walczak, one of the lead attorneys in the Dover trial a decade ago, has filed suit on behalf of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society over a local transit system’s refusal to accept an ad to be placed on buses.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today against the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) over its refusal to allow a local atheist group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society, to advertise on its buses. The lawsuit argues that the transit system violated NEPA Freethought Society’s free speech rights by rejecting its ads because of the group’s views.

Since 2012, the NEPA Freethought Society has tried unsuccessfully to run various ads on COLTS buses. The rejected ads simply say “atheists” along with the group’s name and/or website. COLTS first turned down one of these ads under a policy that gave COLTS discretion to reject ads it deemed “controversial” or that would spark debate or discussion of public issues. In commenting on the rejection, COLTS’ solicitors said that COLTS did not accept any ads “promoting” or “attacking” religion or ads intended to spark public debate. However, according to the complaint, for at least ten years before NEPA Freethought Society tried to advertise, COLTS never rejected a single ad. COLTS has run ads from religious organizations, a political candidate, and a blog with links to anti-Jewish websites. COLTS also displayed the message “God Bless America” on the front of one bus for years.

In September 2013, COLTS again rejected the society’s proposed “atheists” ad, explaining that COLTS believed the ad would “offend or alienate” some of COLTS’ riders, causing COLTS to lose money. Eight days after rejecting the ad, COLTS adopted a new advertising policy that explicitly banned ads that “promote the existence or non-existence of a supreme deity” or address religion.

In 2014, COLTS finally accepted a version of the NEPA Freethought Society’s ad after it removed the word “atheists.”

The original ad only had the word “atheists.” Apparently just that word is offensive. Glad to see the ACLU helping out here against this rather blatant discrimination.

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  • Pierce R. Butler

    … COLTS’ solicitors said …

    Why does the County of Lackawanna feel it necessary to hire British attorneys?

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    The original ad only had the word ‘atheists.’ Apparently just that word is offensive

    To be fair…

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    You mean it didn’t even have a picture of an atheist chomping down on a delicious baby???

    Mmmmmmmm! Baby brains……

  • John Pieret

    COLTS believed the ad would “offend or alienate” some of COLTS’ riders causing COLTS to lose money

    People are going to stop riding the bus because of a word?

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    @ Pierce

    they were …ahem… lady solicitors …. if you get my drift.

  • dcsohl

    a policy that gave COLTS discretion to reject ads […] that would spark debate or discussion of public issues

    Well, thank goodness Lackawanna county is there to protect us from the horrible effects of people actually discussing public issues! What would be the net result if people actually started talking to each other about things that matter and not just sporting events?!

  • eric

    @3;

    You mean it didn’t even have a picture of an atheist chomping down on a delicious baby???

    If you enjoy absurdity, it was quite a funny progression. The first billboard had “Atheists” in big letters with two “contact” web addresses in much smaller letters: one for American Atheists, one for a local Freethought group (which had freethought in its name, not atheism). This was rejected.

    So, they took off the word Atheists and resubmitted. Rejected.

    So, they took off the contact address for American Atheists and resubmitted. Remember at this point, its nothing but a big blank (blue) billboard with an address for a freethought group on it. Rejected.

    At that point, I believe it was Hemant suggested they submit a billboard which had nothing but fluffy kitten pictures on it, just to see what would happen. But I don’t think they tried that.

  • Alverant

    COLTS adopted a new advertising policy that explicitly banned ads that “promote the existence or non-existence of a supreme deity”

    What do you want to bet they’re still taking money to post ads about christianity?

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    Kudos to NEPA and Justin Vacula for continually pressing for equal treatment!

  • Al Dente

    So Justin Vacula is good for something? I’m amazed. Next thing is that Damion Reinhardt will stop being a idiotic asshole. But I doubt that will ever happen.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    Hope springs.

  • moarscienceplz

    … COLTS’ solicitors said …

    Why does the County of Lackawanna feel it necessary to hire British attorneys?

    No, no, no. The County of Lackawanna has its own prostitutes on retainer. This way, unlike the DEA or the Secret Service, they don’t have to waste all that money traveling to Columbia.

  • David C Brayton

    Jeebus, it’s 2015. Why do we still hafta keep fighting stuff like this?

  • John Pieret

    David C Brayton:

    Jeebus, it’s 2015. Why do we still hafta keep fighting stuff like this?

    Because, for all too many people, 2015 might just as well be 1015.

  • bybelknap

    This is right where I live. It is sort of funny strange. Vacula is absolutely correct on his position on this matter. It is also true, in my opinion, that the guy is a real douchecake. I have met him. I offered to allow the NEPA Freethought society to use my cafe as a meeting place – even in relative off hours (between lunch and dinner when we were ostensibly closed to prep and clean etc) and to give society members a discount. Mr Vacula and another fellow showed up one day between lunch and dinner, asked for all sorts of special dietary modifications, and wanted to apply a coupon we were offering on line in addition to the discount for members of the society. They were both really rude to the server when she said she couldn’t combine the coupon with the discount I was giving them as freethought society members. All of my coupons always clearly state that they cannot be combined with any other discounts or offers. I asked what was going on and Vacula gave me a bunch of crap. I said, “fine, use the coupon and the discount. You don’t have to talk to my people that way. It’s pretty clear you’re double dipping. You think that’s OK?”

    He left the server a really crappy, insulting tip – less than what would have been a crappy tip on the double discounted meal. He and his dodgy pal never returned. For which I was glad. The schmucks.

    As far as I know, no other Society members ever came for a meal or asked for the discount. I thought it would have been cool to have them use the place, in addition to making a bit of money. I don’t know of any other restaurants in the area that are “freethought friendly.” Whatever. Maybe no one will do anything for him because they think he’s an asshole, not because he’s an atheist.

  • eric

    Aleverant:

    What do you want to bet they’re still taking money to post ads about christianity?

    The whole bus ad thing happened months or possibly even a year ago, so the timing of the lawsuit certainly is a bit strange. The fact that they’re just suing now could indicate that COLTS has recently ‘backslid.’ Though I’m just guessing at that; I have no data on it.

  • sigurd jorsalfar

    I’m sorry, bybelknap, but I just can’t believe that an atheist behaved in that fashion.

  • whheydt

    Re: eric @ #16….

    Perhaps the time limit for filing suit over a specific incident was running out? One year would seem to be a plausible “sue or lose your chance” time.