Port Authority of Allegheny County Owes Atheist Groups $60,000 in Settlement After Rejecting Its Bus Ads

More than two years ago, the United Coalition of Reason offered to pay $5,700 to the Port Authority of Allegheny County (in Pennsylvania) to put up 12 king-sized bus ads over the course of a month to advertise the newly-formed Pittsburgh Coalition of Reason.

The Port Authority said yes… at first. But just as the ads were about to run, they changed their minds, telling United CoR that the text of the ads — “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” — didn’t comply with the company’s ad policy.

In November, United CoR, aided by the Appignani Humanist Legal Center of the American Humanist Association, filed a complaint in a U.S. District Court:

The Complaint seeks injunctive relief but at this point no motions have been filed. In the Complaint, UnitedCoR alleges that the Port Authority violated UnitedCoR’s free speech rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. UnitedCoR asserts that the First Amendment prohibits the Port Authority, as a governmental entity, from using its disfavor of the nontheistic message of UnitedCoR’s ads as a reason for refusing to run them on its buses. Such acts, the Complaint states, amount to unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination against UnitedCoR’s speech.

I was amazed at how a message reaching out to the godless — that didn’t even refer to, much less denigrate, the religious — could be so offensive as to warrant this lawsuit.

“We tried to support the Port Authority by buying ads,” said Nicole Currivan, coordinator of Pittsburgh CoR. “I take the bus to work every day in my personal effort to support them. But we also want to be treated with the same fairness, dignity and respect as other groups. We just want the Port Authority to run our ads. We want non-believers to know they’re not alone.”

What made the atheists’ case especially compelling was that the Port Authority rejected the message saying that “noncommercial ads” were not allowed… even though they ran such ads from plenty of other noncommercial groups, including churches, advocacy groups, and “hospitals soliciting volunteers for medical studies.”

There’s finally some justice in the matter. Earlier today, United CoR celebrated what amounts to a court victory, even though the Port Authority denies doing anything wrong:

The Port Authority of Allegheny County has agreed to pay $20,000 plus legal fees to settle an advertising lawsuit by a Washington, D.C., group, according to federal court documents filed Wednesday.

Lawyers for the authority and the United Coalition of Reason Inc. filed notice of the agreement, which doesn’t specify an amount for the legal fees.

The atheists’ ads still won’t go up, but at least the policy will become more uniform so that different groups aren’t treated in different ways.

All of this could have been avoided if only the government officials had said yes to the harmless ads to begin with. But this is excellent news following a very straightforward case of anti-atheist discrimination.

I’ve reached out to United CoR for comment but haven’t heard back yet.

***Update***: I just got a message from Fred Edwords at United CoR with a little more information:

The total cost to the Port Authority is $60,000, with $40,000 covering the AHLC’s legal fees. It was the Port Authority that actually suggested the settlement (possibly knowing it was on shaky legal grounds), not a judge.

Why take the settlement and not fight this out in court? Edwords explained it this way:

Although we still maintain that we were improperly denied the opportunity to run our ad, as originally conceived, under the Port Authority’s old rules, the old rules are now gone. So even if the courts allowed our original ad to run, it would merely be grandfathered in as an exception. It wouldn’t improve the situation for others.

It also means United CoR doesn’t have to waste any more time fighting a legal battle.

Some of the $20,000 given to United CoR in the settlement will be used for a new ad campaign for the Pittsburgh Coalition of Reason. Will it be on the buses? Probably not. The new rules set by the Port Authority in the wake of this settlement prohibit ideological advertising. So a billboard may be in the works instead.

We’ll find out very soon…

(Large portions of this article were posted earlier.)

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.


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