to make other people act like idiots.
Consider the fallout from last week’s ad campaign by Iowa Atheists & Freethinkers.
First, lots of religious people complained to the Des Moines Area Regional Transit authority about ads that went up on some buses on August 1. The ads read, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”
Here’s some free advice from a member of a small religious minority: the world doesn’t end because some people don’t share your spiritual worldview. If your faith is strong and your God is big, why are you so worried about a few signs on buses? You don’t seem offended by the casino ads that are all over town and the DART system.
By the way, the controversy stirred up by your complaints brought the atheists’ message to tens of thousands of Iowans who never would have heard of the group or seen their ads. The story generated several reports in newspapers, on local television and Radio Iowa.
Next in line to act stupid were DART officials, who pulled down the ads after three days, claiming the signs hadn’t been properly approved. The Des Moines Register’s editorial board states the obvious:
The transit authority reserves the right to reject offensive ads on grounds of taste, obscenity and accuracy measures. That’s reasonable, but the atheist ad met those standards. Rejecting advertising based simply on the content of the message, especially when the message involves religion, triggers legal questions. DART is wholly owned and operated by Polk County and the 19 communities it serves, and, as such, is an arm of the government. Although the courts have given advertising less First Amendment protection than other speech, the government still must be careful in arbitrarily censoring the content of advertising that expresses a viewpoint.
DART officials agreed on August 7 to put the ads back up, after failing to persuade the atheist group to alter the content. According to the Des Moines Register, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa
had asked DART to provide public records of all internal DART correspondence while processing the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers advertisement, as well as a formal letter from DART explaining the reasons for its decision on the ad.
All of the controversy and potential legal problems could have been avoided if DART employees had told angry complainers, “We don’t endorse the political or religious views of our advertisers. If you would be interested in promoting your own religious beliefs, I’d be happy to connect you with our sales department.”
Governor Chet Culver added his two cents on Thursday:
“I was disturbed personally…by the advertisement, I can understand why other Iowans were also disturbed by the message that it sent. But, we’ll see how it unfolds,” Culver says. Culver would not say whether he felt the atheist group had a free speech right to have the messages on buses.
Culver says: “I think it’s a great question for the attorney general and for legal scholars to kind of sort through that, that balancing act between free speech and the type of message that is being sent. But I do again understand that people were actually not wanting to get on the bus, they were so disturbed by the message that was being sent.”
So former high school government teacher Culver isn’t sure whether atheists have free speech rights. He punts that question to Attorney General Tom Miller and “legal scholars.”
If the governor thinks conservatives will be impressed that he is “disturbed” by atheist ads, he is mistaken. Conservatives will only ridicule his pandering to religious groups.
The Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers stated the obvious in an open letter:
Governor Culver, the members of IAF are your constituents just as much as any Iowa member of a Christian church or any other religious group. We are also citizens of this state and this country and, therefore, entitled to the same constitutional rights to free speech no matter what religion we belong or don’t belong to.
As our highest-ranking elected official, you don’t have to agree with all your constituents or like the message that we chose to sponsor. However, we expect our governor to set an example of respect for diversity and tolerance of others’ beliefs and ideas in this state.
When journalists asked Culver about the bus ads, the correct answer was, “I don’t agree with them, but that’s free speech for you.” Or, “I see lots of ads I disagree with–that’s life.” Or, lacking the courage to deliver that message, “No comment.”