Submitted By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
The Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason has a First Amendment problem. When the coalition of atheists, agnostics, and skeptics attempted to place advertising on Little Rock transit buses, they were met with an unusual demand. In order to place $5,000.00 worth of advertising, the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) required them to purchase insurance against angry Christians in the amount of $36,000.00. The policy was needed said the bus company’s ad agency, On The Move Advertising, because a handful of similar ads had been vandalized in other states.
The controversial ad, affixed to the sides of the buses reads, “Are you good without God? Millions are.” A blue sky with clouds was to be the background behind the words. Shocking news, or so it would seem, in this Bible Belt state which is overwhelmingly Christian (86%) and predominantly Baptist. According to an email from On The Move, “”Arkansas is the buckle of the Bible Belt and I can easily envision zealots or upstanding citizens with a strong faith acting out.” A telling comment if ever there was one.
There is no such insurance requirement on similar church advertising. According to Jess Sweere, Esq., who represents the Transit Authority, this because ” no other advertiser told them their ads were vandalized in other markets.” Out of 36 markets where ad campaigns have run, four have been vandalized, including bus ads in Detroit last year, according to UnitedCoR, a DC based group that organizes atheists and helps fund the ads. UnitedCoR placed similar ads in Fayetteville, Arkansas last year without incident.
UnitedCoR has filed a Complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas claiming discrimination by the Transit Authority and is seeking a preliminary injunction to permit the ads. According to their spokesman, LeeWood Thomas, “The insurance money needed from us basically says CATA and On The Move trust the atheists in this community more so than the religious, otherwise the churches that advertise would have that extra insurance premium added to their total cost.” Trust or no, Thomas says that’s punishment based on the content of the speech and shouldn’t be permitted.
In its brief, UnitedCoR argues that “CATA and On the Move violated UnitedCoR’s free speech rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. UnitedCoR asserts that the First Amendment prohibits CATA, 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. UnitedCoR argues that CATA also may not impose burdensome requirements, such as a damage deposit, on speech it labels ‘controversial.’ Such acts, the legal brief states, amount to unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination against UnitedCoR’s speech.”
As bus advertising is a non-traditional public forum, UnitedCoR has its work cutout for it since the level of First Amendment scrutiny is reduced, but the Plaintiffs have other factors in their favor. UnitedCoR may be able to use the words of CATA’s Executive Director to prove its case. In an email, Betty Wineland, supposedly writes, ” I need Him now more than ever. Good grief. I think we need to throw religion into the advertising policy – as a negative. Stall while CATA reviews.” “Him” may be just the thing UnitedCoR needs to prevail in its claims of discrimination and the last thing Ms. Wineland needed at the moment.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger