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The Central Arkansas Transit Authority and its advertising agency were sued today in federal court for refusing more than $5,000 in bus advertising aimed at atheists and agnostics.

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The image above shows the proposed ad, which was to be put on 18 buses serving Riverfest crowds last weekend.

Here’s a full news release from the Central Arkansas Coalition of Reason. That link takes you to a page with links to the lawsuit, filed by the Washington-based United Coalition of Reason, and other documents. Here’s the group’s website.

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The First Amendment claim argues that the bus company, through its ad agency, put “burdensome” requirements, specifically a huge damage deposit (initially $10,000, then an unspecified but much higher amount), on controversial speech. This amounts to viewpoint discrimination, the group said. FOI documents show that the plaintiffs believe CATA’s ad agency refused the ad purchase ultimately because the agency owner, Lydia Robertson, deemed it “controversial.”

“It’s only fair that, when religious groups are allowed to advertise on Little Rock buses, atheist and agnostic groups be allowed to advertise as well,” declared LeeWood Thomas of Central Arkansas CoR. “The world needs to know that people can be decent human beings without believing in a god or gods.”

The ads have run in 36 markets, including Fayetteville, without incident, in 2010. Damage was done to the ads only in three places and a billboard was damaged in one market, the group said. Some bus signs were defaced in one city.

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Betty Wineland, director of CATA, said the agency didn’t want to inhibit free speech and didn’t refuse the ad. The lawsuit says otherwise, arguing that the damage deposit was a ruse and that CATA threw up numerous obstacles to the ad buy. After reviewing documents filed with the suit, Wineland said she was “mortified” by some notes sent by Robertson’s lawyer that she hadn’t seen. She insisted the bus company remained open to running the group’s ads.

Wineland said the authority’s ad agency, On the Move Advertising, also named in the lawsuit, said there’d been vandalism against the ads in other cities and wanted a $10,000 refundable damage deposit, something it had never required of any other advertiser. Wineland said a couple of churches — Fellowship Bible and Geyer Springs First Baptist — have purchased bus advertising from CATA but have not been charged a damage deposit.

Wineland insisted she believed negotiations were ongoing and said she was surprised by the lawsuit. “I did not want to get into litigation and I’m willing to run the ads. I had no idea it was going to come to this.”

Documents obtained by plaintiffs also show Wineland has in the past discouraged a bus ad by PETA as “too suggestive” and reacted negatively to a female condom ad as well. The agency also reacted negatively to a car insurance ad seen as critical of buses.

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Robertson has not responded to my request for a comment, but there’s plenty from her lawyer in a link below.

Internal discussions about the ad show a more adversarial reaction from CATA and its ad agency than Wineland first indicated to me:

In response to an e-mail message dated February 28, 2011, from Plaintiff’s media broker to the Advertising Agent conveying the content of the Proposed Advertisement, the Advertising Agent forwarded the message to Betty Wineland, the Executive Director of the Authority, stating in her accompanying message (in its entirety): “Dear God……HELP!” Ms. Wineland replied: “I need Him now more than ever. Good grief. I think we need to throw religion into the advertising policy — as a negative. Stall while CATA reviews.” Lydia Robertson, president of the Advertising Agent, then replied to Plaintiff’s media broker, stating that “we are placing this order in a special category” due to the risk of “damage/vandalism done to the buses or signage due to its message.” She then stated that “in reality, Arkansas is the buckle of the Bible Belt and I can easily envision zealots or upstanding citizens with a strong faith acting out.”

A request for a preliminary injunction ordering CATA to sell bus ads at the same terms offered others quotes further from internal e-mail in alleging that CATA and the ad agency had conspired to defeat the ad purchase.