“Atheists” bus advertisement again rejected


An advertisement I submitted promoting the NEPA Freethought Society — a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania-based community group of which I am the co-organizer and spokesperson — and containing the word “Atheists” has been rejected by the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS).

In early 2012, I submitted an advertisement proposal — similar to that which I recently submitted in August of 2013 pictured above — to COLTS soon after seeing “God Bless America” messages scrolling alongside route information on both the sides and fronts of county buses.

My 2012 request was denied because, according to COLTS, the advertisement was in violation of COLTS’ advertisement policy; COLTS deemed the advertisement controversial and said that the ad would spark public debate. COLTS also claimed the advertisement was “attacking religion.”

In September of 2013, COLTS denied my resubmitted “Atheists.” advertisement proposal stating the “advertising space on COLTS’ property is a nonpublic forum,” COLTS does not accept advertisements promoting the belief that there is or is not a god, and that COLTS does not “allow its property to become a public forum for the dissemination, debate, or discussion of public issues.”

COLTS — in its refusal letter — also stated that the “Atheists.” advertisement “may offend or alienate a segment of its ridership and thus negatively affect [COLTS’] revenue” in addition to noting that “the acceptance of ads that promote debate over public issues such as […] the existence of God in a confined space like the inside of a bus detracts” from “COLTS’ goal to provide a safe and welcoming environment on its buses for the public at large.”

Read the full text of COLTS’ refusal letter here.

Following COLTS’ refusal of my proposed advertisement, COLTS, according to reporter David Singleton of The Times-Tribune, “adopted a new advertising policy” “approved without discussion by a 4-0 vote” at its September 17, 2013 board meeting. COLTS’ solicitor, Timothy Hinton, commenting on the advertising policy change, said, ” We want to have a welcoming environment for our ridership, and we don’t think acceptance of those ads to create a public debate on a confined bus is in our best interests.”

COLTS’ new advertising policy notes ads “that promote the existence or non-existence of a supreme deity, deities, being or beings; that address, promote, criticize or attack a religion or religions, religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs; that directly quote or cite scriptures, religious text or texts involving religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs; or otherwise religious in nature” will not be accepted.

The new policy also reads, “It is COLTS’ declared intent to maintain its advertising space on its property as a nonpublic forum and not to allow its transit vehicles or property to become a public forum for the dissemination, debate, or discussion of public issues or issues that are political or religious in nature.”

See COLTS’ old advertising policy dated June 2011 — in place when I submitted by August 2013 proposal — here.

See COLTS new advertising policy dated September 2013 — instituted following my August 2013 proposal — here.

Stay tuned to justinvacula.com for more updates on this matter. I intend to further pursue this issue.

Consider also reading Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta’s reaction to The Times-Tribune article here.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia.

He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events.

Vacula received bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County’s Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher’s assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.

  • Thank you Justin for reviving this. I appreciate the effort, patience and courage it must take. You probably have your own trajectory in mind, but I was imagining a next step could be to submit a completely ordinary looking ad for say, a bake sale from x date to y date at z location, and in small letters saying that it’s sponsored by “the atheists at the NEPA Freethought Society.”

    If that is rejected probably because “atheist” is mentioned in the name of the sponsor, the next step would be to submit the exact same ad but without the word “atheist,” just “NEPA Freethought Society.” If that is accepted, then “atheist” even in the sponsor’s name was definitely the rejecting factor. If it is also turned down, then a final step would be to submit one more bake sale ad with dates and locations, and no mention of the NEPA Freethought Society at all. If that last version is accepted, then “Freethought” was a rejecting factor in the previous ad. If it is rejected, then they’re just rejecting anything at all from a man named Justin Vacula.

    The hypocrisy, paranoia, cowardice, and poorly disguised bigotry of COLT is simultaneously amusing and disgusting. Whatever is your plan, Have fun embarrassing them with their own backwardness.

    • That’s a really good strategy overall, come to think of it.

      Basically, the gist of it is to force the group in question to narrowly identify exactly what it is they object to, and if unconstitutional then to press further if necessary. But not to give up without them being put on the record.

  • Reap Paden

    Does that “welcoming environment” include drivers like Daniel Wittenbreder who warned you he better not see you on his bus? In my exchanges with him he addressed me using homophobic slurs and claiming he was going to have sex with my sister as well as trying to bully me into silence.All because I disagreed with him about displaying “God Bless America” on a bus that is public property.If Dan is an example of a welcoming environment then the COLTS and Mr Wittenbreder need to take some classes

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    The new policy also reads, “It is COLTS’ declared intent to maintain its advertising space on its property as a nonpublic forum and not to allow its transit vehicles or property to become a public forum for the dissemination, debate, or discussion of public issues or issues that are political or religious in nature.”

    So I take it that they don’t accept advertising from political parties or organisations like the NRA?

    • Graham Martin-Royle

      Having read the full policy, I’ve answered my own question. Nope, they don’t.

  • Well! Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face! This reaction is way overblown! Still… does the word “Atheists” and the name of an organization violate their new policy? It doesn’t “promote the existence or nonexistence of a deity”, does it? I don’t believe it does.

  • bismarket 1

    Glad to see you still on the case here Justin. While i may have no direct involvement being a Brit’ i see the importance & dis-ingenuousness of these people in trying to silence any opinion which doesn’t coincide with their own

  • MechaVelma

    Time to sue another reich wing organization into submission.

  • Great job Justin! Let’s just hope they stick to this new policy and it’s not just smoke and mirrors.