Legal response to COLTS’ motion to dismiss

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More legal documents have been released concerning ACLU’s free speech lawsuit launched in April 2015 against County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS).

From April: The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today against the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) over its refusal to allow a local atheist group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society, to advertise on its buses. The lawsuit argues that the transit system violated NEPA Freethought Society’s free speech rights by rejecting its ads because of the group’s views.

Earlier in July 2015, COLTS filed a motion to dismiss the April 2015 lawsuit.

Yesterday — July 27, 2015 — a response to the motion to dismiss has been issued. See the document included below:

2015-07-27 Opposition to COLTS MTD as filed

COLTS files motion to dismiss lawsuit

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The County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) has filed a motion to dismiss the April 2015 lawsuit previously mentioned on this page.

From April:

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today against the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) over its refusal to allow a local atheist group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society, to advertise on its buses. The lawsuit argues that the transit system violated NEPA Freethought Society’s free speech rights by rejecting its ads because of the group’s views.

See below documents concerning the motion to dismiss. I offer no commentary at this time. My legal team should soon offer a response which shall be linked on this website.

2015-06-25 COLTS brief ISO motion to dismiss (1)

2015-06-25 COLTS motion to dismiss (1)

ACLU Files Free Speech Lawsuit Against County of Lackawanna Transit System

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ACLU Files Free Speech Lawsuit Against County of Lackawanna Transit System

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 28, 2015

CONTACT: Sara Mullen, ACLU of Pennsylvania, 215-592-1513 x122, smullen@aclupa.org

PHILADELPHIA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today against the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) over its refusal to allow a local atheist group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society, to advertise on its buses. The lawsuit argues that the transit system violated NEPA Freethought Society’s free speech rights by rejecting its ads because of the group’s views.

Since 2012, the NEPA Freethought Society has tried unsuccessfully to run various ads on COLTS buses. The rejected ads simply say “atheists” along with the group’s name and/or website. COLTS first turned down one of these ads under a policy that gave COLTS discretion to reject ads it deemed “controversial” or that would spark debate or discussion of public issues. In commenting on the rejection, COLTS’ solicitors said that COLTS did not accept any ads “promoting” or “attacking” religion or ads intended to spark public debate. However, according to the complaint, for at least ten years before NEPA Freethought Society tried to advertise, COLTS never rejected a single ad. COLTS has run ads from religious organizations, a political candidate, and a blog with links to anti-Jewish websites. COLTS also displayed the message “God Bless America” on the front of one bus for years.

In September 2013, COLTS again rejected the society’s proposed “atheists” ad, explaining that COLTS believed the ad would “offend or alienate” some of COLTS’ riders, causing COLTS to lose money. Eight days after rejecting the ad, COLTS adopted a new advertising policy that explicitly banned ads that “promote the existence or non-existence of a supreme deity” or address religion.

In 2014, COLTS finally accepted a version of the NEPA Freethought Society’s ad after it removed the word “atheists.”

“It’s hard to advertise effectively if we’re not allowed to use the word ‘atheists’ to say who the NEPA Freethought Society’s members are or who we’re trying to reach,” said Justin Vacula, organizer and spokesperson for the NEPA Freethought Society. “We just want to be treated fairly and allowed the same opportunity to advertise that COLTS has given other groups for years.”

According to the complaint, COLTS’ decision to ban all religious ads and begin enforcing its advertising policy was motivated by its dislike for NEPA Freethought Society’s beliefs.

“The First Amendment means that government officials can’t censor speech just because it’s unpopular or because they disagree with the speaker,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Once you open up a space for speech, you have to let everyone in equally.”

The NEPA Freethought Society is represented by Mary Catherine Roper and Molly Tack-Hooper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Theresa E. Loscalzo, Stephen J. Shapiro, and Monica Clarke Platt of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.

More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint, is available at: www.aclupa.org/COLTS

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Media:

Friendly Atheist relinked at RichardDawkins.net

Associated Press story featured on CNBCPhilly.com, The Washington Times, Reading Eagle, and other sources

The Times Leader (updated since original posting)

Scranton Times-Tribune (updated since original posting)

The LuLac Political Letter

Religion Clause

The Christian Post

Dispatches From The Culture Wars [archived screenshot]

Background Probability

The Washington Post

Christian News

Metro

 

Looking forward to 2015

The below message has been posted to the NEPA Freethought Society’s forum. If you live in the Northeastern Pennsylvania area, are a secular freethinker, and are not yet a member of the NEPA Freethought Society please consider joining the group’s meetup.com page and attending events.

The NEPA (Northeastern Pennsylvania) Freethought Society is a social, educational, activist, and philosophical coalition of atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, and skeptics predicated on support and community which upholds the separation of church and state and promotes critical thinking.

Fellow freethinkers,

2014 has been a good year for the NEPA Freethought Society. Following a close to three-year struggle of bus advertisements being rejected, we advertised on a County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) bus hoping to grow our membership and make our existence as the only freethought group in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area known.

We’ve again displayed a ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ banner and attended a National Day of Prayer event in Wilkes-Barre offering a message encouraging separation of church and state & challenging the notion that government involvement in politics/prayer will fix earthly problems.

We’ve challenged Wilkes-Barre’s City Council on several fronts: objecting to its observance of Good Friday (closing City Hall in recognition of a Christian holy day), arguing against government-led prayer at council meetings, and even offering a secular invocation during a meeting.

We continue to work with the Freedom From Religion Foundation — a strong and effective partner in challenging violations of church/state separation — and support local freethinkers who experience difficulties surrounding religion’s inappropriate involvement in their workplaces, school districts, and community.

Our website’s reboot on Meetup.com has also been a success – providing a good tool for people to view the group’s efforts, keep informed about current news, and RSVP for upcoming meetings and events.

In 2015, we shall continue with local activism and offering a place for freethinkers to meet monthly. Whether or not you’re interested in activism, you’re always welcome to attend meetings for good conversation, company, and dining.

We shall add more venues for meetings in addition to our usual restaurant of choice El Zocalo. Future meetings will be held at Super Kings Buffet in Wilkes-Barre Township and Rustic Kitchen at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Plains.

Super Kings Buffet offers an affordable and vast Chinese lunch buffet including made-to-order hibachi and fresh sushi. Rustic Kitchen offers an affordable lunch menu including alcoholic drinks. To keep dining costs even more affordable for members, you can purchase Rustic Kitchen dining certificates which come with free play for slot machines, video poker, or other electronic games at Mohegan Sun. More information about meeting locations and other details will be provided in January.

At the end of 2014, consider making a donation to support our efforts and keep our website running. Become a dues-paying member if you already are not or make a donation with a credit card using our online payment system. Donations in form of cash are also accepted at meetings.

The NEPA Freethought Society looks forward to seeing you in 2015. Have a good holiday.

NEPA Freethought Society bus ad fundraiser success

NEPA Freethought Society advertisement, including disclaimer, to appear on COLTS bus
NEPA Freethought Society advertisement, including disclaimer, to appear on COLTS bus

The NEPA Freethought Society fundraiser to place a bus advertisement in Scranton, PA is a success!

Thanks to supporters who helped make the NEPA Freethought Society fundraiser to place a bus advertisement in Scranton, Pennsylvania a success. The ‘soft’ fundraiser goal of $235 was surpassed – the fundraiser reached $292 which will allow for payment of fundraising fees and a small contribution to the NEPA Freethought Society for future expenses including subscription fees for meetup.com.

This month, the NEPA Freethought Society advertisement is scheduled to appear on a County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) bus. Updates, including photographs of the advertisement, shall be posted here. Thanks again for the support!

Learn more about the NEPA Freethought Society on its meetup.com website.

The NEPA (Northeastern Pennsylvania) Freethought Society is a social, educational, activist, and philosophical coalition of atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, and skeptics predicated on support and community which upholds the separation of church and state and promotes critical thinking.

As always, feel free to comment below.