Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society v. County of Lackawanna Transit System, No. 18-2743 (3d Cir. 2019)Annotate this Case
Freethought proposed an ad to run on Lackawanna County public buses: “Atheists” with the group’s name and website. County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) rejected the ad under its 2011 policy, prohibiting ads for tobacco, alcohol, firearms, political candidates; ads that in COLTS’s “sole discretion” were “derogatory” to racial, religious, and other specified groups; and ads that are “objectionable, controversial[,] or would generally be offensive to COLTS’[s] ridership. In promulgating the policy, COLTS considered vandalism directed at atheist posts in other locations. In 2013, COLTS added a prohibition on 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 [that] are otherwise religious in nature. The Third Circuit concluded that the policy discriminates based on viewpoint and violates the First Amendment. Government actors cannot restrict speech because they “disapprov[e] of the ideas expressed.” That a message is “decidedly religious in nature” does not relegate it to second-class status Even if COLTS’s ban on religious speech were viewpoint neutral, it is not reasonable. COLTS never received a complaint about an ad, even one sponsored by a racist and anti-Semitic blog. No one complained about the religious and political ads COLTS ran before it enacted its policies.