Seven years ago, the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) rejected a proposed bus advertisement from the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society, an organization for atheists, agnostics, secularists, and skeptics. COLTS refused to run the ad because it included the word “atheist.” This decision was on the basis that it’s the policy of the transit system not to allow “potentially controversial ads to run.”
COLTS later issued a statement that officially banned ads “that promote the existence or non-existence of a supreme deity, deities, being or beings; that address, promote, criticize or attack a religion or religions, religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs; that directly quote or cite scriptures, religious text or texts involving religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs; or [that] are otherwise religious in nature.”
After that, the ACLU of Pennsylvania took action and brought this case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on behalf of the Freethought Society and First Amendment.
On September 17, the Federal Appeals Court ruled that the ban violates the First Amendment. JURIST, an online legal news and commentary website run by the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, published an article about this decision. Other than JURIST, the story was only picked up by a few small local news sources.
According to the case, COLTS’s argument was that the bus didn’t need to be a public forum for debate and that such controversial or religious messages could potentially cause hostility. However, COLTS provides public bus transportation and is primarily funded by the state and federal governments. This means that COLTS doesn’t have the ability to limit speech by determining what is and isn’t allowed to be shown on its buses, which are technically public spaces.
Another argument made in the case was that COLTS had run potentially controversial ads in the past, and that this Freethought ad was the first to have an issue. The example that was frequently referenced in the case was when COLTS ran an ad encouraging parents to immunize their children. COLTS’s response to this was that its board didn’t feel this ad was controversial at the time, but that they wouldn’t run it today. Regardless, I think this shows how subjective controversy can be. We shouldn’t be censoring messages that we think might result in conflict, because what we view as controversial might not be what someone else views as controversial. By deciding who is allowed to share their message in a public space, we’re also deciding who does and doesn’t have the right to freedom of speech and expression. By only allowing certain messages to be advertised on its buses, COLTS was denying Freethought its First Amendment rights.
In the end, the Freethought Society was finally able to get a bus ad and share its message with the community because a ban on religious messaging in a public space violates the First Amendment. However, my biggest takeaway from this lawsuit is that an institution tried to limit debate to avoid conflict. I think the ability to debate and be exposed to controversial topics in a public forum is important and necessary for the change and progression of society. It’s great to read about an instance where that public forum was successfully protected by the First Amendment.