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Posted on Feb 28, 2012 in COLTS, government, local, NEPA Freethought Society bus campaign, separation of church and state | 55 comments

Really, really, really inoffensive “Atheists.” bus ad rejected

(Design change 4/4/12)

On 1/30/12, I proposed an idea inspired by Richard Wade writing for the Friendly Atheist blog and atheist activist Carl Silverman to run a really, really, really inoffensive bus advertisement. Many atheist advertisement campaigns have been considered ‘offensive’ by religious individuals and some atheists, including myself, have wondered what exactly offended. Was it the mere fact that atheists making their presence known offensive to religious people? Perhaps the word “atheist” offends people? To ‘test’ this and to advertise the NEPA Freethought Society — a local community group of non-theists in Northeastern PA — I contacted the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) with serious intentions to run the bus ad you can see above.

After announcing my idea, various persons have stepped forward to donate money to make these ads a reality, but I had told persons that it would be best to wait for the bus company — which receives county, state, and federal funding — to confirm whether they would run the ads. I was told that the board of directors for COLTS needed to meet and decide whether they would run the ad…and after a long wait of 15 days, COLTS refused the ad although this meeting certainly wasn’t public if it even happened at all because meetings are held on the third Tuesday of each month.

Jim Smith, the advertising contact at COLTS, said that the reason for refusal — appealing to the very questionable and vague advertising policy of COLTS — was that COLTS does not accept ads which could be deemed controversial or otherwise spark public debate.

Funny, that is. COLTS runs “God Bless America” on their scrolling tickers which are supposed to relay route information and has also run an ad saying “Consider adoption…it works!” Interestingly enough, the “Consider adoption…it works!” ad has been REMOVED from COLTS’ website (you can, though, see a picture of it below); the ad was previously in the gallery of sample ads, but it is no longer thereAn ad for “Old Forge Times” — an overtly political site containing links to Holocaust denialist websites and white supremacist information — had also appeared on COLTS’ buses.

When a governmental entity offers ad space on buses, it can’t discriminate or otherwise ‘pick and choose’ the messages they like and do not like. My “Atheists.” ad is intentionally inoffensive and with a content-free message (I even removed the clouds). COLTS needs to reconsider their decision and stand up for free speech that they should be offering. Atheists should be allowed the same opportunities to advertise just like everyone else.

In previous cases like this, bus companies have utterly lost when they tried to discriminate regarding advertising. Rejection of reasonable ads is a blatant violation of the first amendment!

We’re not giving up by any means. These bus ads shall be a reality no matter how long it takes to make that happen.

This ad, previously displayed on COLTS buses (although no longer shown on COLTS’ website although available in the Wayback Machine) directs viewers to a website which contains links to holocaust denial, antisemitic, and white supremacist websites in addition to Hal Lindsey’s website.

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  • Oh…oh my ribs. Laughing so hard…ribs hurt. Ow.

  • Christina

    Sad that just the word “Atheists” could be considered offensive. Fight the good fight!

  • Well done, Justin. The first phase of the experiment is completed. Succeeding phases will test the determination of the opposing parties, the effectiveness and fairness of the law, the bias or objectivity of the press, and the attitude of the public. Not only will we be gaining useful information about these things, we will also be making important public statements about these things. Bigotry, inequity, and hypocrisy begin to whither when they are forced to look at themselves. I’m very grateful for your efforts. Keep up the good fight. Let us know how we can support you.

  • Brian Westley

    What is it about bus advertising boards that attracts tinpot dictators with no sense nor shame?Have your butler alert the media; if no butler, alert them yourself.

  • Christian

    Maybe I’m being obtuse — but upon first reading, the biggest question I have is: why do you feel the ‘consider adoption’ ad be deemed controversial or spark public debate?

  • Sully

    You can answer that yourself by asking what ‘alternatives’ there are to adoption. Especially when discussing unborn children. It is a VERY sensitive subject…..

  • Atheist

    You can’t possibly be that obtuse. Oh wait, I see your screen name now. Yes, you can.

  • Anonymous Coward

    Have you tried asking about an ad for Christians? Same layout, just the word and sponsors. If they’ll accept Christians but not atheists, it’s pretty clear.

  • Just curious, as you are claiming a 1st amendment right – as an atheist, where do you feel that right come from? Not trying to be snarky here, I’m genuinely curious as to your (or someone’s) answer.

  • Laughing

    I was adopted. I can testify that the statement “It works!” is absolutely controversial. In fact, without a lot of fine print and qualifiers, it’s a flat-out lie.

  • JasonG

    Consider ATHEISM… IT WORKS!

  • I read that as “Oh my TITS” (emphasis added) and was thoroughly confused for a moment.

  • Dan Dorfman

    This moronic occurrence made me smash my head onto my keyboard. AFTER facepalming with the force of a thousand suns.

  • Ipecac

    David, you’ve heard of “The Constitution”? That’s where the 1st Amendment Right comes from. Duh.

  • Thanks so much! The bus ads will soon be a reality!

  • Regardless of where individuals stand, it should be quite obvious that issues concerning abortion or adoption could be controversial. Persons might object to the ad claiming it is anti-abortion or otherwise an attempt to have women reconsider getting adoptions. Women who have had abortions might feel demeaned by the ad. Whatever the case, controversy can certainly come from that ad.

  • Hi David,Your question sounds a bit rhetorical, as if you are thinking of a specific answer that you want to express, since the answer seems rather obvious to Ipecac and myself, but I’ll assume your question is genuine and answer it too. First Amendment rights come from just that, the First Amendment, a document written by people. Over hundreds of centuries of struggle and experimentation, people have developed a variety of ways of living together, and they have seen that some ways work better than others, but people still disagree on many points. Society was invented and developed by people, the various ways that societies are organized have been invented and developed by people, and the values that support those social systems are invented and developed by people. Some of those values are called rights. They are almost always hard-won through bitter struggle and sacrifice, and so once people gain them, they want to protect them from being taken away again by other people who disagree. So sometimes people will claim that some kind of powerful higher authority has invented and given them those hard-won rights as a gift from above, implying that attacking those rights will incur the displeasure of that powerful higher authority. If that actually were so, then every society would enjoy all the same rights IN PRACTICE, but that is not the case. Societies have only the rights that people have been willing and able to fight for and to preserve through constant vigilance and occasional struggle. Attributing their rights to that powerful higher authority is merely an attempt to scare off those who would like to take those rights away from them, but in reality, it is people who invented and developed them, people who demanded them, people who fought and died so that their fellows could have them, and it is people AND ONLY people who will protect and preserve those rights. No higher authority is going to protect us from others who might try to take our self-invented rights away. It has always been, is now, and always will be, up to US.

  • I’m so glad we’re contolled in Europe – happened to ‘the land of the free’?

  • Try an ad with the sole word “Islam”. Will they accept it? I think not.

  • AWESOME. I mean, that’s exactly what we were hoping would happen, right?

  • While “it comes from the Constitution” is more or less a sufficient answer for the limited purposes of this discussion, I think David is (probably inadvertently) scratching at something deeper. I know for me personally, I feel that freedom of speech is a fundamental right whether it is enumerated in the Constitution or not! And in fact, the concept of unenumerated rights is very important when it comes to Substantive Due Process, which is responsible for Roe v. Wade and may very soon be responsible for striking down DOMA — so we don’t want to just shrug and say, “Rights are what are enumerated in the Constitution.” There is more to it than that. There MUST be more to it than that, or else these idiots trying to deny marriage equality can just point to existing legislation and all the court battles end.Saying that fundamental rights were handed down by God is a shitty answer, partially because it’s patently false of course, but also partially because it has the same problems as the “it comes from the Constitution” answer. If God didn’t happen to enumerate a particular right, does it go away? I should say not! “Fundamental rights come from Jeebus” has exactly the same flaws as Divine Command Theory. If it’s whatever the bossman says, then it’s not morality/not fundamental rights. And if morality and/or fundamental rights would be the same even if the magic bossman were wrong about them, then he cannot be the source of them. You are either forced into a rather reprehensible “might makes right” argument (in which case rights such as freedom of speech are even *more* meaningless), or you wind up with a circular argument.A secular case for fundamental rights would take far longer to develop than I have time for, since I have to get in the car right about two minutes ago. I will say that I go a little beyond Richard, in that I don’t think these rights are purely negotiated. I mean, in the end that’s where they come from in practice, but they stem from something deeper, something much more ingrained in what it means to be a member of H. sapiens. Unfortunately — gotta go!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    … as an atheist, where do you feel that right come from?I’m not sure what you mean by this, Mr. Graham. Which irrational, threadbare trope are you pushing today? Is it that the U.S. constitution was handed to us by God? Or is that that the first amendment, which provides freedom of religion, somehow does not provide freedom from religion? We need to know which idiocy you are peddling so that we can respond appropriately. The most general response applies in any case: educate yourself.Not trying to be snarky here, I’m genuinely curious as to your (or someone’s) answer.Pthththt. You reasons for being an idiot do not interest me.

  • oy, love to see Pennsyltucky live up to its name. Hmmmm, I wonder if Capitol Area Transit down here in Harrisburg would accept these ads.

  • wow, just wow…

  • eric

    IANAL, but Justin is probably appealing to the public forum doctrine, which I believe arises out of the establishment part of the 1st amendment. Basically, if the government allows public messaging, it can’t allow some religious messages but not others. It can’t, for instance, allow Hal Lindsay to advertise a pro-christian web site but not allow atheists to advertise their web site. Legal precedents inlude (again, IANAL): Southeastern Promotions v Conrad (1975) Widmar v Vincent (1981) Rosenberger v Univ. of Virginia (1995)Christian Legal Society v Martinez (2010)

  • “holocaust denial, antisemitic, and white supremacist websites”…..YOU BETTER LEARN HOW TO READ BUSTER. I assume you are refering to the articles of the late Joseph Sobran, former editor of National Review, who was vehemently against everything you accuse him of above. Please name the white supremacist websites that Mr. Sobran recommends and any anti-Semitic statements he ever made. Don’t hold you breath!

  • Lukas Xavier

    >I assume you are refering to the articles of the late Joseph SobranWhy would you assume that when Justin explicitly links to the sites he’s referring to?

  • never heard of those sites, much less did i link to them…def

  • Here are screenshots of your page: above links, in a previous reply, are those detailing Mark Weber.

  • Thank you very much for your measured response, Richard.I do wonder though, if I am correct is understanding your self abbreviation of your view is that our rights are “self-invented” – what then is to keep someone who disagrees with my view or what my rights are from willfully violating my rights (or of course vice versa)? It seems to dovetail into what James brings up below in the thought that “might makes right”. IE. I earn my rights when I have the physical wherewithal to “make” you respect my rights.Still thinking things out…

  • Thank you very much, James, for your measured response. I certainly hope to hear your further thoughts on this.I think you bring up some good points, and would love to hear more about a “secular case for fundamental rights” as you say, long though it may be. Of course, that’s easy for me to say – I understand it takes less time simply reading such a discussion than it is to put it in writing!My ears do perk up at your turn of phrase “something much more ingrained in what it means to be a member of H. sapiens” and where that ingraining comes from. Biological evolution? History of society? Obviously, some others would even point to intelligent design.I admit that am often very silly and confuse Jefferson’s “that [men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” being in the preamble to the Bill of Rights, instead of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence (where more level headed folks know it goes!) – and was curious as to what atheists make of that line, and if we should consider changing it, etc.Again, thank you to all who have taken an interest in the discussion.

  • Reginald, I do no appreciate being referred to as an idiot.No, I do not think the “constitution was handed to us by God”. The amendment in question states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” To my mind, this is not a freedom from religion, but rather a freedom from a state mandated religion.To be honest, you come off as somewhat of an uncouth jerk.

  • M. A. Melby

    wow – I suspect they didn’t bother finding out what “The Old Forge Daily News” was all about – oops.

  • I think you’re reading me right, David, and James is too. Although James’ characterization of my view as implying “might makes right” perhaps sounds brutal and scary, I’m afraid there is the harsh truth that, in answer to your question, there is NOTHING to prevent someone who disagrees with us from willfully violating or removing our rights, EXCEPT for three things: 1) the strength of our arguments for the desirability of those rights, 2) the strength of our integrity to extend those rights to everyone, not just those whom we like, and 3) the strength of our arms and legs to fight, if we must, to protect those rights. If I’m reading James correctly, he is searching for what I think is a primal, or evolutionary root for our most cherished rights, and that might be demonstrable; I’m not sure yet. It’s a very interesting idea. Over centuries we have refined ideas such as the intrinsic equality of people, the equal protection and responsibility of people under laws, and the freedom of thought, speech and movement. Different societies have won them, lost them, and regained them several times through history. But whether we justify those rights because they have biological/evolutionary roots, or we justify them as a gift from God, all that is still beside the point:It’s still going to be up to, yes, our MIGHT to keep those rights in our possession. There’s always going to be someone who wants to take them away, and they will not be swayed by references to deities or DNA. It will only be our intelligence, our integrity, our vigilance, and sometimes our blood that will stop them. Keep thinking things out. I admire your earnestness.

  • Christian

    Richard, I have followed Justin’s blog for a long time, and I have to say, this is the most interesting and candid comment I have read on it in a long time. A year or two ago he and I were debating how right and wrong would be codified in an atheist system, and at the time he denied that rights come from power, and are defined through power. Thank you for providing the intellectually honest answer. While I found it shocking to come from someone whose website is ‘the friendly atheist’ your ORIGINAL unedited post of “it will only be our intelligence, our integrity, our vigilance, and sometimes our BLOOD that will stop them,” retains the true clarity of purpose. Although history has shown that keeping/determining rights more often involves the conviction of spilling the blood of those opposed to you. Pol pot calling the kettle black, and all that.

  • Have you ever bothered to read Mark Weber’s page…… You will find that he is no anti-semite or white supremacist. It is a page concerned with seeking out and questioning revisionist history, of which the Jews, among others, are masters. Why should we believe exclusively the Jews account of the so-called Holocaust?…Corbett, right! He’s your speed Justin. now THERE’S a colossal bigot and immoral rabble rouser. Get yourself some better friends young man! Did you bother to read the articles on my page by Sobran about the Jews? Try it. Might be interesting. DEF

  • Christian, I really don’t want to belabor this discussion much more, because I have a lot of stuff to do, but I don’t understand a couple of things you’ve said. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting, but I think I hear a crowing tone, like a “gotcha!” in your calling “candid” my statement of the obvious, that the rights we enjoy we have because people argued, fought and died for them, and we will only continue to enjoy them if we are willing to continue to argue, fight and die for them whenever and if ever that becomes necessary. What is the big deal discovery to you about my saying that? For me, it’s a “Well, duh.” Secondly, I don’t understand what is “shocking” about what I said and my writing for the Friendly Atheist. What is the contradiction, conflict, irony, or whatever it is that you are referring to? Finally, I don’t understand your reference to Pol Pot. Are you comparing me to him, or what?Let me make one thing crystal clear, just in case there’s some misconception: When I talk about fighting for our rights, that means that I will fight, and if I must, die to protect YOUR rights, and everyone’s rights, not just mine or those of people with whom I agree.

  • Mendiosus

    The Supreme Court completely disagrees with you.

  • Moonratt

    I think my irony meeter just broke.

  • You are a Holocaust Denier denier.

  • I suspect that it is because my wife and I adopted two children that I would read into the “Consider adoption” ad something completely different that what you are. We considered adoption after we found we could not have any of our own (and, by the way, it worked. We now have two children 10 and 17 years of age.). Perhaps this is the approach Christian is taking.Devil’s advocate.

  • o were you at the “holocaust”? tell us what happened….The Jews love idiots like you who believe anything they tell them.

  • KevinDougherty


  • It looks like that image must have been changed. Try the Wayback Machine version instead:

  • Hey, your image of the OLD FORGE TIMES ad on the bus is gone — replaced by one about buying bus passes at the library.You should have copied the image and put it on your own server instead of linking to the image on the COLTS server! They’ve kept the file name and changed the image.

  • Thanks. I updated the post. Chrome, for some reason, didn’t change the image.

  • mongo

    Dont need to change the line………..endowed by THEIR creator, it does not say…endowed by OUR creator. Creator could be anything a person believes it to be, from a God to your parents.

  • So Holocaust Denialis and cramming religion down people’s throats is not considered “controversial” but asking people to consider adoption, and informing people that there are Atheists in the area are???Maybe they should just stop running ads then. Besides, I prefer transit vehicles to be free of clutter even if they are hideous breadboxes.

  • DanDare

    Amazing and as obvious a legal breech as it is, it shouldn’t even matter if the ad is “offensive” or “controversial”. If a government agency can suppress for those reasons then there simply is no freedom of speech and expression at all.

  • nicholas shearer

    but the “it works” actually means “it works toward our agenda of banning abortion, which is our only concern”

  • Sarah Powell
  • Good work! I have included your story in a description of similar troubles in Utah.

  • Why not try an ad that doesn’t seem to imply only atheists are capable of “free thought”? The controversy in your ad is the organization that is attempting to redefine words.From their own website: “free-think-er n. A person who believes in the significance of Freethought – a way of looking at the world that holds that beliefs should be formed on the basis of science and logic, and not influenced by emotion, authority, tradition, coercion, dogma or established belief. Freethinkers include atheists, agnostics and rationalists. No one can be a freethinker who demands conformity to a bible, creed, or messiah. A freethinker rejects supernatural and paranormal claims and beliefs which cannot be empirically proven using reason and the scientific method. To the freethinker, revelation and faith are invalid, and orthodoxy is no guarantee of truth.”While it makes sense that a “free thinker” should minimize the influence of emotions and coercion on his own thoughts, it doesn’t make sense to exclude him deciding to accept authority, tradition, dogma, or established beliefs. Science and logic indeed support the basis of authority, in many ways. The most obvious way, to any rational person, is to recognize that we cannot as an individual learn everything there is to know of importance; therefore, we must at some point trust in the authority of experts who have chosen to pursue further study in that field, while we focus on our own field of study.The reality is, you are passing off a highly discriminatory organization dishonestly in this ad.

  • Anonymous

    Luke-Jr, your picture is next to the word “dishonestly” in the dictionary.

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