Bus Company (Again) Rejects Ad Reading Simply ‘Atheists’

Last month, I mentioned that atheist Justin Vacula wanted to put up the following ad on buses in the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) in Pennsylvania:

You can’t get more inoffensive than that.

But the COLTS board rejected the ad, saying they don’t “accept ads which could be deemed controversial or otherwise spark public debate.”

Yesterday, the board met to hear one final plea in support of the billboard. They heard it. Then they rejected it again.

… COLTS upheld its original decision, saying the atheist ad violates an existing policy.

Justin Vacula, a Marywood University student, was the only member of the NEPA Freethought Society to attend the COLTS Board of Directors meeting.

We will not allow our transit vehicles or property to become a public forum for the debate and discussion of public issues, and since passing this policy in June, we have been very consistent in not allowing any ads that violate the policy. That’s why we didn’t permit Mr. Vacula’s ad promoting atheism,” said COLTS solicitor Tim Hinton.

So there you have it. Simply saying the word “Atheists” is a discussion and debate just by itself. Not “Atheists are good” or “Atheists exist” (things that you could at least *argue*). Just the word itself is a public statement of… something.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Kahomono

    Someone should propose an ad that says, “Jesus.”

    If that’s accepted, it would be cassus belli.

    • Anonymous

       They’ll just say they assumed it was a Chicano name – Jesus Rodrigo Cortez.

      • Brian Pansky

         maybe…”Jesus Christ”?

    • http://twitter.com/WCLPeter Rob U

      Better yet have one that says “Christian”.

  • Guest

    Right, because the last thing that a public transit system should do is make people think.  They should sit motionless and thoughtless until it is time to get off.

  • Anonymous

    This really seems like it could be a contest now. Can we get it rejested if it just says “Atheists?”, with a question mark rather than a period? How about just a red A?

    How about an ad that’s just a picture of a cute puppy, with American Atheists mentioned in the fine print?

    Really though, it’s hard to get more blatantly prejudiced than saying “Oh yeah, religious people can put up messages about religion, but atheists can in no way even put up ads mentioning themselves.” Assuming (as I do) that this is covered under anti-discrimination statutes, this will be AA’s easiest case yet.

    • Truthteller

      The transit agency claims that since they adopted their policy last year, they have not accepted any religious ads, so the discrimination-against-atheists argument will fail.   Instead we have a case of free speech violation (viewpoint discrimination) by a public agency, since they are accepting commercial, product related speech, but not other speech.  Plus the “debate ” and “public issues” exclusions are way too vague.  What a stupid Board of Directors.  What a waste of tax money.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_CO4XFS7IXIESALGRH5RJLDUTHE p

    What is the history of the kind of ads they have allowed in the past since June? 
    Have they allowed political/religious ads or not?-
    If no, then they are perhaps at least being consistent
    if yes, then they are unfairly violating their own policy and need to be challenged.

    • Brian Westley

      They had “god bless America” running as a free (i.e the bus company’s) message up until earlier this month.

  • Carla

    Or, just maybe, the transit people are smart enough to know what AA is doing? The ad was intended as a test to see how pissed off people would get about the word atheist, and AA wasn’t exactly secret about that. That intention violates the company’s policy, so it’s their right to say no. If AA had read up on the company, they might have known that. I mean, they went in all but trying to get rejected just so they could say, “Look guys! Discrimination!” If a Christian group approached the same company with an ad that says “Jesus” with the publicized intention to see how many atheists got pissed off, I’m optimistic the company would reject that as well. If AA wants to post an ad just to see how mad people get, I would suggest they do it with a company that wants to deal with that. 

    • Rory Barclay

      All they would have had to do then is to publish the ad, the atheists wouldn’t be upset. Mind blowing, I know.

      • Carla

        It’s not the end result that matters, and if people weren’t so busy getting pissed off they’d stop to realize that. The atheist ad could have been harmless in the end. 

        A company has no compulsion to publish an ad intended to find out if the ad offends others, and demanding that they do is unfair to the company. Mind blowing, I know.

        • Guest

          But that misrepresents what the campaign was doing. The entire point was to make the *least* offensive ad. The assumption on the part of AA that somebody, somewhere would still be offended doesn’t change that, it’s just a fact of reality. 

        • nym

          the publicized intent was never to piss people off, it was to test the water. 

        • Brian Westley

          “A company has no compulsion to publish an ad intended to find out if the ad offends others”

          They do when it’s subsidized by the government, as COLTS is.

    • Anonymous

      I’m not sure why you think it’s the place of the transit company to judge the motives of advertisers. As long as an ad is legal and conforms to a reasonable standards policy (e.g. limiting “obscene” language or images, partisan political ads, refraining from conflict-of-interest etc.), it’s really not their business.

    • Keith Royster

      Carla – We hereby declare our intentions to get pissed off at any and all ads that this company carries on their buses.  Having stated that publicly (by your logic) they should avoid carrying all ads – you know – to avoid controversy and debating public issues and all.

    • Alex

      I agree, it was one of the ideas behind the ad, but it’s not like the only purpose was to create controversy. For what it is, the ad is a promotion of a local atheist club with the simple slogan, “Atheists.” Now, what anyone might or might not have hoped this would cause, can be seen in discussion behind this billboard.

      The whole point was that, even when we don’t have even a slight intention of hurting anyone’s feelings by pointing out that we exist, people still get offended. Just about every atheist organization’s billboard so far has been stalled, refused, moved, or vandalized: sometimes, more than one of those. As we see, even when we simply state who we are, we are getting rejected. QED

  • http://twitter.com/happy_skeptic David

    And yet those buses are currently displaying the sign “God Bless America.” (More on that at http://goo.gl/FjtYW.)

    I don’t know if it’ll do any good, but here’s a list of PENNDOT email addresses we might write to let them know that we think this is partisan and biased toward religion. It’s at least an active step instead of just complaining.

    http://www.luzernecounty.org/content/File/MPO%20Coordinating%20Committee%203-3-11.pdf

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_CO4XFS7IXIESALGRH5RJLDUTHE p

      “And yet those buses are currently displaying the sign “God Bless America.” (More on that at http://goo.gl/FjtYW.)”
      Oh dear, Looks like they already have an “agenda”  then.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Sweet/1280927267 James Sweet

    We will not allow our transit vehicles or property to become a public forum for the debate and discussion of public issues

    That’s the biggest load of bullshit I’ve heard all week.

  • Erik Cameron

    If my local transit system adopted this policy, would I get to stop looking at thinly veiled pro-life ads targeting lower class women every day?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Maybe Justin should have gone with “Puppies Are Cute.”

    Oh well, let the litigation begin. It’s all part of the ongoing experiment. Kick ass. 

  • Tmaccabe

    Public transit a company. Any Ad can be debated. Victoria’s Secret? Allowing “God Bless America” and not “Atheists” is descrimination. 

  • Davincirapp

    You all keep acting like this is the first time you’ve run into this stuff. To keep trying to buy a billboard from someone who clearly doesn’t want to get caught up in your crusade is the very definition of crazy. It’s not going to work and it’s just playing into the hands of those who gladly already generate massive propaganda against you. 

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      This is a long term struggle. At this stage it isn’t about popularity or public relations. It’s about having the same basic freedom of speech as anyone else. Until we are able to advertise and publicize just as freely as any other group, we’ll have no chance to change public attitudes.  Unless we fight those who unconstitutionally deny us a voice, we will never have a voice. While we  are muzzled, others will continue to slander us. That is not acceptable.

      The Bill of Rights is nothing but ink stains on parchment unless there are real, living people who stand up to enforce the rights written there.

    • Jesse

       If by “work” you mean, getting the ads displayed, even against various levels of foot-dragging and resistance, it *has* worked, multiple times, in the past.  And I expect it will work again this time. It will just take some more effort.

      If by “work” you mean generate more positive publicity, normalization and visibility for atheists and atheism — then this effort, like most of the billboard efforts in the past, *already* has worked, and will be even more effective when the billboard actually is displayed.

      Your point?

  • http://www.holytape.etsy.com Holytape

    “We will not allow our transit vehicles or property to become a public forum for the debate and discussion of public issues.”Aren’t all advertisements at some level a forum of public debate, or do they only accept ads that are so plain and boring that no one even looks at the ad?

  • Mjscloud

    I actually emailed them and suggested they resubmit with the word “Theists” instead to see what happens.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    Mere controversy may be insufficient grounds for banning all religious speech, given R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, if the bus company functions as a state agent. But IAmNotALawyer.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    The purpose (not same as intent) of the ads is to advertise the contact info of an Atheist organization for other atheists.  If a Church can put up an ad with their website/address/phone number/worship times, then any other organization should be able to do the same.  Hell the fucking KKK can ‘Adopt A Highway’ (supported by the 
    8th Circuit Court of Appeals)

    Their religious privilege is causing them to be confused over the difference between a theological argument and an advertisement.

    “God Bless America” IS a ‘controversy/discussion’.  The only reason they don’t see it that way is that they think everyone agrees.  To better see this, translate ‘God’ into another language and see what happens.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephan-Goodwin/676660806 Stephan Goodwin

    Lawsuit time.  Take their underpants in court.  

  • Alex

    They’ve been about as consistent about it as the Bible. I thought AA already illustrated that in their letter.

  • Gregory Lynn

    I think two things are pretty clear.

    Our very existence makes them feel threatened. Why, I dunno, but it does.

    It behooves all of us to protest loudly and vociferously (as long as you can do so safely) as much religious advertising as we can. When you see the pro life stuff, write and complain. When you see god this, god that, write and complain.

    If controversy is going to be the measuring stick then let’s give ‘em controversy.

  • Greisha

    Actually, I would take it as complement to resent work by atheists.  Looks like we already got to be heard.


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