Was COLTS advertisement rejection a free speech violation?

Federal judge heard testimony Monday

SCRANTON, LACKAWANNA COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) - It's a debate over religion that has finally hit federal court.

Lawyers for the County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) squared off Monday before a judge.

At issue is whether COLTS rejection of an advertisement from a local atheist group several years ago.

Back in 2015, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit against COLTS over its refusal to run an advertisement for the NEPA FreeThought Society on its buses.

In that rejection, the ACLU believes COLTS violated the atheist group's right to free speech.

Lawyers for the ACLU and Justin Vacula of the NEPA FreeThought Society left federal court Monday afternoon after arguments before a federal judge wrapped up.

They believe COLTS discriminated against Vacula's group when it refused to run an ad on its buses that featured the word "Atheists."

"In this area religion is particularly popular and the viewpoint of atheists or secularists is very unpopular. As an organization we're seeking to provide a community of supports and have our face in the public," Justin Vacula with the NEPA FreeThought Society said.

COLTS argued the advertisement violated a policy set-up in 2013 which prohibited ads that specifically mention politics or religion among other things.

The bus company argues its policy is reasonable because it worries about heated debates or even fights breaking out.

We showed the ad to several bus riders in Scranton Monday who weighed in on the issue.

"That could be taken several ways so I see why that would be offensive to some people and they'd want to give COLTS hell and COLTS doesn't want to start that!" Raymond Ward of Carbondale said.

While some people took issue with the proposed ad others didn't and they felt it should have run.

Eileen Masters, Scranton)

"Just like anyone else they can advertise. I don't know what the problem is," Eileen Masters of Scranton said.

"I don't have an issue with it. It's expressing another type of mindset, a different type of culture," Anthony Demor said.

Demor lives in Rochester, New York.

He thinks the advertisement could have actually sparked meaningful discussion.

"One of the biggest Christian lessons, I think, is to always accept other people, trust in your neighbor and build a community," Demor said.

The judge on Monday was asked to declare COLTS advertising policy unconstitutional but we likely won't have a decision until at least early 2018.

The judge gave lawyers on both sides more time to file legal arguments before he makes a final decision.

The NEPA FreeThought Society is not seeking any monetary damages from its lawsuit. The group says it is still interested in running its advertisement.


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