Here We Go Again

I was notified by email from Atheists United in Los Angeles of the following incident:

On November 20, 2008, the city of Rancho Cucamonga pressured General Outdoor Advertising to remove a controversial billboard with the message “Imagine No Religion” on it because some of its citizens were offended by it.

The billboard, paid for by Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national non-profit advocacy group for atheists and agnostics, included only the words “Imagine No Religion” and the contact information of the organization. The billboard was to stay up throughout the holiday season, but was abruptly taken down when Rancho Cucamonga city administrators demanded that the billboard company do so.

“This is a serious overstep by the city over the boundaries of the First Amendment,” stated Stuart Bechman, President, Atheists United. “It’s hard to imagine a more innocuous statement of non-belief. But even this was too much for political leaders who are clearly in the pockets of some religious leaders to suppress any expression of views that diverge from the orthodox line.”

“City leaders have demonstrated their clear bias towards protecting and providing special privileges to their favored religious beliefs, in clear violation of the California and United States Constitutions. I would like to think that few Christians are so insecure in their faith as to support this action.”

Atheists United and other civil-rights organizations expect an apology to all freethinkers from the city and an admission of error on their part; and if they refuse, for the California Attorney General’s office to open an investigation on the illegal actions taken by the city.

The email includes this link to Atheists United for sending a message to Rancho Cucamonga.

As in other incidents of governmental oppression of atheism, the argument arises that if the city administrators had censored any other group such as a church, synagogue or mosque wanting to express their views on religion and to advertise their presence, the local government would be facing multiple lawsuits and a storm of outrage from across the country. Once again, in their ignorance and bigotry, local officials think it’s okay to squelch the civil rights of atheists.

It is time that we educate them. They’ll keep doing it as long as we let them get away with it.

I don’t think that AU and FFRF should ask for an apology, they should sue immediately and not settle. At the very least, the Rancho Cucamonga City Administrators should pay for restoring the sign, pay for the days that it was down, pay for the AU and FFRF’s legal fees and then issue an apology.

Your thoughts and suggestions?

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://atheistsunited.org Brian from AU

    FFRF is suing. The courts don’t open till 9am Monday morning, but the lawsuit is already in the works.

    The AU campaign is one part of a whole strategy, but its something that every one can do easily.

    thanks for spreading the word.

    -Brian

  • Harknights

    I live a couple towns away. Some locals called the sign disturbing?!? The signs for Club Flesh strip club, San Manuel Casino and “End times are near” Church not so much I guess as they are still up.

    For as blue as this state is we sure turn red at the worst times. My mom who is a weekly church attendee is very mad at the city. Even she sees that a city has no right to ignore the 1st amendment.

  • Daniel

    The central part of California is scary red in my opinion. I live in Tulare County which voted something like 75% Yes to (bet you can’t figure out) 25% No on Prop 8.

  • http://atheists.meetup.com/531 benjdm

    AU typically refers to Americans United for Separation of Church & State, right? That was confusing.

    I’ve passed this along to others and will contact the city tomorrow.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    I agree they should go straight to the lawsuit.

    I also feel sad for the people who complained about this. My guess is that they live in constant fear or every little thing that challenges their tiny worldview.

  • Richard Wade

    benjdm,

    AU typically refers to Americans United for Separation of Church & State, right? That was confusing.

    In this case AU refers to Atheists United, mentioned in the email. Thanks for your help!

  • Richard Wade

    Here is what I emailed to the Rancho Cucamonga City Council:

    Subject: What were you thinking?

    To the City Council of Rancho Cucamonga:

    Your decision to pressure General Outdoor Advertising to remove the billboard that was paid for by the Freedom from Religion Foundation was very foolish and will probably prove to be very costly. If you had chosen to educate the few misguided citizens who had complained to you, helping them to understand the all-inclusive nature of freedom of speech instead of caving in to their ignorance and bigotry, your community would be better for it.

    Instead, you’re in for a well-deserved lawsuit.

    If you had suppressed the speech of any other group, such as a church, synagogue or mosque, simply because those who were not members complained to you, you would have been rightfully vilified in the media as bigots and oppressors of civil rights. Media vilification or not, that is exactly what you are. I look forward to seeing you explain in court why you think you have the right to squelch the rights of citizens merely because you disagree with them.

    Richard Wade

  • MH

    I’m trying to look at the upside here. In some parts of the world there would be an angry mob to deal with over that billboard.

    The worst that is likely to happen here is a lawsuit that the city will likely loose. Oh and Fox news will probably ridicule the people who put up the billboard and ask them why they didn’t put it up during Ramadan.

  • incunabulum

    If you are in the military or work for the federal government, be sure to donate to FFRF through the Combined Federal Campaign!

    That’s what I’m gonna do.

  • Lyz

    I agree, I think that a harsh lawsuit is the best course of action…unfortunately, our society probably won’t realize it as a due reinforcement of EVERYONE’s freedom of speech and rights, but will probably instead categorize it as yet another frivolous lawsuit.

  • http://billybareblu.stumbleuupon.com billybareblu

    Richard says, “I would like to think that few Christians are so insecure in their faith as to support this action.”

    Unfortunately, Richard, I’m afraid you’ld be incorrect in thinking that. The involvement of support extends to those citizens, especially Christians and those of other religious faiths, who are aware of the action but have offered no counter action.

    It’s the same in all instances of legislative and social injustice.

  • Richard Wade

    billybareblu,
    That quotation was by Stuart Bechman, President of Atheists United in his public statement.

    However, I agree with you that the problem is systemic, involving many, many people who are apathetic to threats to civil rights unless they are directly affected.

  • http://www.mindblink.org Linda

    many people who are apathetic to threats to civil rights unless they are directly affected.

    Apathy turns into empathy and compassion only through experience. To expect more is unrealistic, no?

  • Michael

    Not really relevent to the story, but interesting anyway

    “It is as great a pleasure for me to be criticized by the communists and the atheists of the Charleston Gazette as to be applauded by my best friends,” he said. “Because I know they are wrong. People are cowering away from being criticized by people that are our enemies.

    http://www.williamsondailynews.com/articles/2008/11/22/news/doc49281e3eb9f80150469491.txt

  • Richard Wade

    Linda, you asked:

    Apathy turns into empathy and compassion only through experience. To expect more is unrealistic, no?

    Yes, that change can happen if the experience is the personal loss of the freedom. Fortunately, that experience is rare in this country. Unfortunately, people take it for granted because it is mainly rare among those in the majority opinion. The First Amendment was created to protect minority views; majority views don’t need protection.

    Very few people are mature enough to be able to adopt the famous maxim, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” attributed to, but never actually said by Voltaire.

    However, I don’t think it is entirely unrealistic to expect that kind of integrity from people who have never been squelched. The idea can be taught. I was taught it in school, ordinary public school, and it stuck. Long before I ever personally experienced being censored, I was able to have empathy and compassion for the minority view, and to see that their freedom of speech is not just equal to, but identical with mine. Maybe in the ensuing years that emphasis on the inclusion of all speech has been lost from our education system. Somehow, we must re-instill this ideal into the public mentality.

  • http://gaytheistagenda.lavenderliberal.com/ Buffy

    Funny how those who are constantly crying about religious intolerance are the first to practic it.

  • Jonsi

    I received a response from Rancho Cucamonga. Apparently, the city did not request the advertising company, Great Outdoors Advertising, to take down the billboard. If true, this is not a church and state issue, it is a private issue regarding whether or not the advertising company breached contract. The city claims it was not at all involved with the removal of the billboard. Therefore any complaints should be directed at the advertising company.

  • TXatheist

    Jonsi, appreciate you looking into this… According to Redevelopment Director Linda Daniels, City Hall had received 90 calls of complaint since Wednesday.

    “We contacted the sign company and asked if there was a way to get it removed,” Daniels said.

  • Magdalena

    A similar situation happened in Oklahoma City, regarding the removal of gay pride banners by the city council. Oklahoma=homophobic. The city was sued and was found guilty of wrongdoing. I’m trying to remember all the details, as there was mention of financial restitution.

  • Richard Wade

    Apparently, the city did not request the advertising company, Great Outdoors Advertising, to take down the billboard.

    FFrF made the agreement with General Outdoor Advertizing, the papers were signed, the fee was paid, and the billboard was put up. Then the City got the alleged 90 complaints and Redevelopment Director Linda Daniels publicly admitted, “We contacted the sign company and asked if there was a way to get it removed.”

    That is clearly a case of the City improperly intervening to use its influence over a private company to suppress the First Amendment rights of a private group after a completely legal transaction was completed. It was none of the City’s business and using their ability to pressure, whether implicitly or explicitly, was out of line. While these cowards scramble for cover and point their fingers at each other, the fact will remain that both the ad company and the City are liable.

    Happy hunting!

  • Jonsi

    Well, then I stand corrected again. I was merely repeating the response from the City that I received. In my email, I prefaced saying “allegedly you received complaints and you notified the billboard company and then they removed it, and if that is not true, then I please disregard this complaint, but otherwise…”

    They responded saying they never did or said anything to the company, that the company acted on its own accord. I guess they are lying. Certainly the redevelopment director exerting influence is a problem, and if proven true, I hope they are sued.

  • Richard Wade

    Jonsi, I’m sorry if I sounded like I was jumping down your throat. Like TXatheist said, I appreciate your getting that information. I was reacting to what clearly was a lie told to you by the City.

    How was it you got a response? They haven’t answered my email. Gee, I wonder why?

  • Richard Wade

    Whoops, I spoke five minutes too soon. The City of Rancho Cucamonga just responded to my email:

    Re: What were you thinking?

    Thank you so much for your inquiry regarding the “No Religion” billboard
    and the media’s coverage regarding its removal. I am responding back to
    your inquiry to clear up any misunderstandings and to make it clear that
    the City of Rancho Cucamonga gave NO direction in the removal of that
    billboard message, or any billboard message. In fact, the City does not
    have any authority over the content of a billboard and the City does not
    approve what is put up on a billboard and is not authorized to remove
    billboard advertisements. The City of Rancho Cucamonga has NO role in
    controlling billboard content.

    The advertisement that you refer to could go up or down or changed
    anyway the billboard company wishes to at any time like any other
    billboard without any approval or permit by the City. These are purely
    private sector business decisions with no input by the City.

    For those who want to know why the billboard company put up a particular
    advertisement, it would be appropriate to contact the billboard company.
    Conversely, if one has questions regarding the removal of a particular
    advertisement, the billboard company should be contacted. The City is
    not responsible for any business decisions made by any billboard
    company.

    Again, I want to thank you for your email. The City of Rancho Cucamonga
    appreciates your thoughts and concerns and I sincerely hope that this
    response has answered your concerns.

    Fabian A. Villenas
    Principal Management Analyst
    City Manager’s Office
    City of Rancho Cucamonga
    (909) 477-2700, extension 2006
    fabian.villenas@cityofrc.us

    So they will try to deny the various sources that have quoted Linda Daniels having said that she contacted the ad company and asked about taking the billboard down. General Outdoor Advertising, not wanting to take the rap all by themselves will probably say they were pressured by the City, even if it wasn’t much pressure.

    It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to simply put the billboard back up for the agreed amount of time and let the City respond to those who complain by educating them about freedom of speech.

  • TXatheist

    Thanks Jonsi and Richard.


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