By Suzi Parker
(Reuters) – A federal judge ruled on Thursday that the free speech of a coalition of atheists had been violated when Little Rock’s public bus line denied them the right to place $5,000 worth of ads on city buses.
Judge Susan Webber Wright ruled that the Central Arkansas Transit Authority and its advertising agency should not have denied the group the right to place the ads on 18 publicly-funded city buses during Memorial Day weekend.
Washington-based United Coalition of Reason filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Arkansas group in June after the transit authority and its advertising agency rejected an ad that would have read, “Are you good without God? Millions are.”
“This was a victory for all of us whether you believe in God or not, because it’s a victory of free speech,” United Coalition of Reason’s attorney J.G. Schultz told Reuters.
The transit authority and its advertising agency, On The Move Advertising, had required payment of a $36,000 deposit to run the ad. The group then changed that to a $3 million insurance policy in case of bus vandalism by angry Christians.
Webber Wright ruled that the United Coalition of Reason would need to place a $15,000 bond to be filed with the court in case of any damage that may occur to a bus.
Schultz said the group had initially offered a $10,000 deposit before any lawyers got involved.
“It wasn’t because we thought it was okay but rather because we wanted to get these ads on during Riverfest so we were willing to do a little more,” Schultz said, referring to a Little Rock music and art festival.
Attorneys for the Central Arkansas Transit Authority or On The Move could not be immediately reached for comment.
Out of 36 markets where ad campaigns have run, only four have seen vandalism, according to UnitedCoR’s website. Last year, UnitedCoR placed ads on outdoor billboards and buses in Fayetteville, Arkansas, without incident.
In 2009, the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, a group of atheists who are also involved in the bus ad campaign, successfully sued the state of Arkansas to erect a Winter Solstice display on the grounds of the State Capitol near a nativity scene.
“The freethinkers have been out in the open here in Arkansas without any incident,” said LeeWood Thomas, a spokesman for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers.
Thomas said the group would now refocus the bus campaigns on bus routes near the city’s colleges.