AHA Files First Amendment Lawsuit After Being Denied Ad Space

(Washington D.C., June 1, 2011) Today the Appignani Humanist Legal Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of the United Coalition of Reason (UnitedCoR) in response to an Arkansas transit organization’s refusal to lease advertising space on account of the proposed ad’s atheist and humanist content, violating of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

“Governmental entities cannot discriminate among speakers on the basis of their viewpoint when operating a public forum they have opened for speech, such as public transit advertising space,” said Bill Burgess, attorney and legal coordinator of the American Humanist Association’s legal arm, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “The government likewise cannot impose burdensome conditions on speech it deems ‘controversial,’ as the transit authority did in this instance by insisting that the Coalition, unlike other advertisers, post a damage deposit because the authority said it feared the ads would be destroyed by vandals.  The First Amendment does not permit a heckler’s veto.”

The ad, which reads, “Are you good without God? Millions are,” was rejected by the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) and On the Move Advertising, Inc., despite the facts that CATA holds no clear policy on ad content, and has displayed religious and political themed advertisements in the past.  

“Being visible is important for us,” said Fred Edwords, executive director for the United Coalition of Reason, “because atheists and agnostics in our society often don’t know very many people of like mind. Furthermore, if traditionally religious people can be open about their views, why shouldn’t we be open about ours?”

The United Coalition of Reason is a nonprofit national organization that helps local nontheistic groups work together to achieve higher visibility, gain more members, and have a greater impact in their local areas. This goal is achieved by assisting local groups in the “community of reason” to cooperate with each other.

“The government has no rightful role in determining whether speech that it disfavors should be heard,” concluded Burgess. “Freedom of speech is guaranteed to all Americans, secular and religious alike. We will not stand silent in the face of censorship motivated by religion.”

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center is a project of the American Humanist Association that provides legal assistance to defend the constitutional rights of secular Americans by challenging violations of the separation of church and state guaranteed by the Establishment Clause and seeking equal rights for humanists, atheists and other freethinkers.