No, That’s Not What ‘Free Speech’ Means

bus benchYet another Christian leader has confused preferential treatment with First Amendment-protected free speech this week. Pastor Lawson Perdue of Charis Christian Center in Colorado Springs has been notified by the local transit bench billboard company that his “Jesus is Lord” ads will no longer be allowed on the benches they control.  The rationale he was given for this change in policy is that the ad company is trying to prevent having to allow hate speech in the future by not allowing “Jesus” on the benches either.  This change was made after an unknown complaint was filed with the company.

I see where they’re going with this, but it may be an overreaction to the complaint.  They’re trying to avoid being sued by someone who wants to display a more controversial message, and could use the allowance of “Jesus” messages as a precedent.  I don’t think that would be a good precedent to allow hate speech, but it could certainly be used to force the ad company to allow Church of Satan or atheism ads, which would be a total affront to American society (/sarcasm).

Of course, Pastor Perdue displayed his lack of understanding of the First Amendment by categorizing this new policy as a violation of free speech.  Those words do not mean what he thinks they mean.  What he, and arguably way too many people, thinks free speech means is that he is free to buy an ad from a private entity and have it say what he wants.  That’s just not true.  Free speech in the Bill of Rights simply refers to the right to say what you want in public without fear of prosecution or other punishment by the State.  It doesn’t mean you can say anything you want without fear of consequence from a private party, and it doesn’t say you can buy an ad from a private party without limitation of its content.

Personally, I hope he sues, just so he can waste some of that tax-free church money and recirculate it into the economy.  My gut tells me that no lawyer with an understanding of the First Amendment would take such a case.  Then again, it’s an opportunity to grandstand in public, so who knows.

UPDATE:  The decision to discontinue the ads was made by the city transit office, not a private company.  However, this doesn’t change much in regard to the premise of the pastor’s complaint.  It becomes an Establishment Clause dispute, which is what the city will be using as its defense of the decision.  Since the ad was a reference to a specific faith, the city can deny the ad by saying approval would constitute favoring one religion over another.  To avoid complaints and maintain neutrality, they could deny religious ads altogether.

About Kevin Davis

Kevin Davis is the head writer and editor for SecularVoices, and the author of Understanding an Atheist: A Practical Guide to Relating to Nonbelievers, a book aimed at improving relationships between the religious and their atheist loved ones. Kevin is also the Executive Director of Young Skeptics, an elementary-level after-school program for kids focused on critical thinking. Guest bloggers are welcome at SecularVoices. Please email submissions to contact@secularvoices.org.