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In bus ad ruling, atheists (kinda) win and Reuters screws up

August 12, 2011

At first glance, the news this week out of Little Rock, Ark., in which a federal judge ruled that a public transit line was wrong to deny an atheist group advertising space on buses, seemed like a victory for non-believers. But it’s not so clear cut. For one thing, the atheist group is still being asked to pay because of (the threat of) other people’s bigotry. The other issue is perhaps less problematic for atheists but pretty obnoxious journalistically. First, a little background from the Arkansas News:

A federal judge today ordered the Central Arkansas Transit Authority to allow an atheist group to advertise on the sides of city buses.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright said the transit authority must make space available for the group’s ads that read, “Are you good without God? Millions are.”

Apparently the bus line and its advertising company didn’t flatly reject the ads, but they did demand a $36,000 bond in case the buses were vandalized. The atheists offered ten grand. That offer was rejected. So a coalition of atheist groups sued. The judge said the atheist group would still need to pony up a $15,000 bond because — even though other groups who advertise on Little Rock buses don’t have to pay anything — buses with atheist ads in other cities had been vandalized. Huh?

I loved Friendly Atheist‘s response to this point:

In other words, they wanted atheists to pay for any vandalized ads.

I’ve said this before, but that’s like putting out a Bat Signal to religious vandals: Go ahead and destroy this sign! The atheists will have to pay for the damages, not you!


So yeah. Regardless of the amount, it still strikes me as messed up that the atheists have to pay for potential vandalism.

Which brings me to my journalistic problem. In the Reuters version of this story, we are told that the advertising agency was concerned about the possibility of vandalism by “angry Christians.” This was not attributed to anyone. It was just written there in black and white. Like it was a known fact that angry Christians were marauding the streets of Little Rock.

Here’s the context:

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.

First of all, I am rather confused by this paragraph. The group is the advertising agency? They were asking the atheists to pay $3 million? Not sure what’s going on there. But who said they feared “angry Christians”? Someone with the bus line? The advertising agency? The atheist group?

OR is this the reporter’s speculation? (Quite honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised given the poor handling of religion I’ve seen in Reuters stories lately.)

In any case, it maligns a whole group of people without any evidence. Can you imagine if the potential vandals were so casually suggested to be “angry Muslims”? (And why not? Muslims would likely be just as offended — if not more so — by these atheist ads.) But it would still be incredibly irresponsible and misleading to write it in a news article without some kind of evidence. So what’s with the reference to angry Christians?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack Wirtz permalink
    August 15, 2011 8:02 am

    I am an avowed Christian, a convert from atheism 49 years ago; atheists, as well as one else, have every constitutional right to advertise on any publicly owned venue that accepts advertising on the same terms as everyone else; however, if anyone advertising should prove to be cause for criminal action than the public agency should no further accept ANY advertising.

    Do understand and do not confuse the rights afforded and guaranteed for public property with the rights afforded and guaranteed for private property.

    For the most thorough development of this “freedom,” read John Locke’s small book, “Letters on Toleration.” Both in print and the original on Google Books.

  2. August 15, 2011 6:24 pm

    The reference to “angry Christians” is from an email from Lydia Robertson of OTM Advertising (page 47,, which states:

    “Please know that we only make money if we make money for the transit authority, so I don’t want to do anything to discourage the order. However, 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. I cannot and will not accept this additional liability.”

    Does this answer your question?

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