LITTLE ROCK — A federal judge today ordered the Central Arkansas Transit Authority to allow an atheist group to advertise on the sides of city buses.
U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright said the transit authority must make space available for the group’s ads that read, “Are you good without God? Millions are.”
The judge also ruled that the authority could charge a $15,000 bond, $21,000 less than the transit agency requested. The atheist group did not want to pay a bond, arguing that other advertisers did not have to pay one, but Wright said some bond was reasonable because of incidents of vandalism in other cities where the coalition conducted ad campaigns.
The Washington-based United Coalition of Reason filed a discrimination lawsuit in June after negotiations to place the ad on 18 city buses broke down.
The coalition’s ads also include the Internet address of the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason, a coalition of 10 Arkansas groups of nontheists, including atheists, agnostics and others of no religion.
At a preliminary hearing today, CATA Executive Director Betty Wineland testified that she worried about public reaction if the ad appeared on CATA buses.
“I did have some concerns about the ads, in that it might create some negative publicity for Central Arkansas Transit,” she said.
Lawyers for the transit authority and the ad agency hired to place the ad said they were satisfied with the judge’s ruling.
“The judge did a real good job of giving everybody what they wanted,” said Jess Sweere, attorney for the transit authority.
Gerry Schulze, attorney for the coalition, said he would have to confer with the group’s Washington office before deciding whether to challenge the $15,000 bond requirement, but he considered the ruling a victory.
“I think we definitely won,” he said. “The judge was convinced that what we were saying, that there was (government discrimination) here from the beginning and that we were deprived of our constitutional rights to be treated like everybody else.”
The case could still go to trial, but Schulze said he was not sure whether any issues remained to be resolved. Attorneys for CATA and On the Move said they saw no reason for a trial.
The lawsuit alleges that the transit authority, a quasi-governmental entity, conspired with On the Move Advertising of Little Rock to violate the group’s First Amendment right of free speech when they failed to reach an agreement to place the ad.
In a motion before Wright, the coalition sought a temporary injunction to force the transit authority to offer it advertising space on the buses under the same terms offered to other advertisers, such as a church that advertised its vacation Bible school on CATA buses.
The defendants maintained the signs are likely to provoke acts of violence and that On the Move would be liable for damages.
Lydia Robertson, co-owner of On the Move, testified that repainting the side of a CATA bus would cost about $2,000. She said acts of “vandalism and terrorism” are a real possibility and referred to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“One month from today will be the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy at the World Trade Center,” she said.
Schulze said in his closing arguments that people “are not going to hijack a plane and fly it into a bus. This is all way overblown.”
CATA also claimed that it never flatly rejected the ad, so there was no violation of constitutional rights by a government entity. But Wright said CATA had created a public forum and, based on evidence including emails between it and On the Move, was involved in the decisions that led to the ad not being placed.
“The public interest always favors free speech. It’s one of several rights that make our country so great,” she said.