Appignani Humanist Legal Center Wins Appeal in FOIA Request on Atheist Bus Ads in Utah

By Bill Burgess

In Salt Lake City, Utah, the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center has been involved in defending the freedom of speech of the United Coalition of Reason.  The Utah Transit Authority refused to allow UnitedCoR to run advertisements on its trains promoting a new local nontheist group, the Utah Coalition of Reason.  UTA cited its policy that prohibits all non-governmental, noncommercial ads.  In order to determine whether UTA is following its policy or is selectively enforcing it against UnitedCoR in violation of the First Amendment, the legal center submitted a request under Utah’s Government Records Management and Access Act (which is similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act) for copies of all of the ads that UTA had accepted or rejected over the past year.  UTA refused to provide the copies, claiming that doing so would violate copyright law.  The Utah State Records Committee heard the legal center’s appeal of this decision and ordered UTA to provide access to copies of the ads, agreeing that such access amounts to “fair use” rather than illegal copyright infringement.  The legal center will soon be able to review the records and determine whether UTA complied with the First Amendment, and, if not, will bring suit.

In a similar situation in Pittsburgh, the Port Authority of Allegheny County refused to allow UnitedCoR to run bus ads, citing a policy that prohibits noncommercial ads.  The Port Authority recently lost a lawsuit brought by the ACLU about a similar noncommercial ad denied under this policy because the policy has not been uniformly enforced.  The legal center requested copies of documents under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Act showing the Port Authority’s practice in implementing its advertising policy.  The documents produced show that the Port Authority has previously allowed noncommercial ads promoting community-building such as the one that UnitedCoR had sought to run.  The legal center is preparing for a potential lawsuit to force the Port Authority to stop discriminating against UnitedCoR.

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center is also preparing a potential case in Stockton, California, where the San Joaquin Valley Coalition of Reason encountered discrimination in its effort to take part in the Stockton Asparagus Festival.  The company which organizes the festival refused to allow the Coalition to rent a booth despite the fact that several religious and political groups were allowed to do so.   The executive director, when pressed as to why, stated that “I’ve seen your website.  You hate God.”  This discrimination is a violation of California’s public accommodations law, the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which forbids businesses from discriminating against members of the public on the basis of their religious views.  The legal center has sent a letter to the festival asking them to reverse their decision and is preparing to file suit if necessary.

As we move into 2012, the AHA’s legal center will continue to be vigilant in defending the separation of church and state and equality rights for humanists at the national and local levels. 

We invite any AHA member who thinks that they may have encountered a violation of these legal rights to contact the legal center at  We also invite any attorneys who would like to cooperate in helping the legal center on a pro bono basis from time to time to contact us at the same address. 

To keep up with the legal center’s ongoing activities, please visit our Facebook page at

Bill Burgess is the legal coordinator of the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center.