By Jake Sandlin
Arkansas Democrat Gazette
LITTLE ROCK — A national organization filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Central Arkansas Transit Authority and its advertising agent over bus ads the group said CATA rejected because the signs promoted atheism.
The advertisements, set against a background of blue sky and clouds, would have read: “Are you good without God? Millions are.” It would also have included a website address.
The lawsuit, filed by the United Coalition of Reason, alleges that CATA refused the advertisements, originally proposed in February, by wanting to “impose burdensome requirements” on the coalition by requiring a liability deposit up to $36,000 against potential damages to buses because of the advertisements’ nontheistic message.
The coalition, based in Washington, D.C., filed the lawsuit in Little Rock against CATA and On The Move Advertising, which handles CATA’s advertising contracts.
The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright. In December 2009, Wright ruled in favor of a coalition affiliate group to place a winter solstice display beside a Nativity scene on the state Capitol grounds.
Betty Wineland, CATA’s executive director, and the public agency’s attorney, Jess Sweere, both responded Wednesday that CATA hadn’t rejected the advertisement, but concerns had been mentioned over possible vandalism to buses displaying the advertisement on the vehicles’ sides.
Sweere called it “unfortunate” that the lawsuit was filed while there were ongoing negotiations over placing the ad.
“The ad was never rejected by CATA,” Sweere said. “There have been situations in the past when CATA suggested that ads be altered.CATA didn’t do that in this situation.”
The coalition focuses on organizing local atheist and agnostic groups and providing funds for bus and billboard advertising, according to a news release by the organization.
CATA is a publicly supported agency that provides bus service in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Sherwood, Maumelle and in unincorporated parts of Pulaski County.
The $5,200 worth of signs were originally proposed to run on 18 buses in time for Little Rock’s three-day Riverfest last weekend, the lawsuit stated. The annual Memorial Day weekend festival drew an estimated 260,000 attendees, according to Riverfest officials.
The coalition’s lawsuit said that CATA and On The Move, a Little Rock advertising agency, wanted a liability deposit – first of $10,000, then $2,000 per bus side, or $36,000 for the 18 bus sides, the lawsuit stated – that isn’t required of other clients. Those clients have included churches and other social advertising.
“What it amounted to was they could run the ad, but they added financial restrictions on top of us,” LeeWood Thomas, a spokesman for the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason, said in an interview Wednesday. “It was based on what could happen.”
Sweere, CATA’s attorney, said that a damage deposit was “never something CATA had requested.” He added that the coalition’s objective appeared to be a lawsuit that would “generate publicity more than it was to place ads.”
“The coalition was extremely disagreeable and very threatening from the initial communication,” Sweere said. “They were trying to bait us to generate a lawsuit.”
Because CATA’s contract with On The Move places the responsibility for damage back on the agency, Wineland said, owner Lydia Robertson had mentioned concerns about having to pay for any damage on bus ads.
“As a small-business owner she was concerned about being able to cover any damages,” Wineland said.
The lawsuit, however, quotes from internal e-mails between Wineland and Robertson that it said demonstrate “that CATA never intended to accept” the proposal, wanting instead that the “onerous and burdensome additional conditions” would cause the proposal’s withdrawal.
Sweere said the group obtained the e-mails through an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act request that “had unfortunate comments” discussing the coalition advertisement.
Through the advertising agency, CATA previously has turned down bus advertising for female condoms, Wineland said, and successfully requested “modifications” in wording in other bus ad proposals.
Those included replacing the word “cheeks” in a women’s jeans ad and another for low-cost auto insurance that mentioned “not having to ride the bus anymore,” which might have been offensive to low-income passengers, Wineland said.
The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, now part of the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason, won an injunction against the state in 2009 that allowed a winter solstice display to be next to a manger scene on the state Capitol grounds.
“I would think that would have set a precedent,” Thomas said.
The group also has adopted a one-mile stretch of Cantrell Road/LaHarpe Boulevard. He knew of no vandalism, Thomas said, to either the winter solstice display or the adopt-a-street sign.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a pro-atheist group in Madison, Wis., placed an anti-religion billboard in North Little Rock in 2009 at Thomas’ request on behalf of the Freethinkers society.
“This is the same thing,” Thomas said, referring to the proposed bus signs. “It’s a group within our community advertising within a public space. It’s just a different message to a different sector of society.”