PSTA aims to avoid ad flap

The transit agency is examining its policies after anti-Scientology ads were posted on county buses in December, sparking a legal debate.

St. Petersburg Times/January 28, 1999
By Thomas C. Tobin

Clearwater -- A vigorous complaint last month from the Church of Scientology has prompted Pinellas transit officials to consider a blanket policy against certain bus advertisements.

Church representatives called public officials at home on Saturday, Dec. 5, to protest the anti-Scientology messages that began appearing that morning on 10 buses rolling through the streets of Clearwater. The ads were bought by a group of Scientology critics in town that weekend for a protest against the church.

The next day, Roger Sweeney, executive director of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, responded by pulling the 10 buses off the road. In addition, the New Jersey-based company that placed the ads for the PSTA had them stripped off the buses.

Since then, the Scientology critics who placed the ads have complained that the agency violated their First Amendment rights and responded too readily to pressure from the church.

On Wednesday, at the PSTA's first meeting since the episode, the critics' attorney, Ken Dandar, hinted they would sue if necessary. Dandar also asked the transit agency to honor the rest of its three-day contract and allow the ads to run again this December, when another protest is planned.

Instead, board members agreed to work on a new policy that would ban such ads in the future. Board member Bob Clark, also a Clearwater city commissioner, said it should be modeled after a Phoenix policy that confines bus ads to "speech which proposes a commercial transaction."

Board attorney Alan Zimmet said such a policy could be defended, based on court rulings in Phoenix and other cities where similar disputes have arisen.

The ads in question were placed by a group called Former Scientologists Speaking Out, whose goal was to cause existing church members to question Scientology. The messages included: "Doubt is not a crime," "Think for Yourself. Quit Scientology" and "Why does Scientology lie to its members?"

Sweeney said he pulled the buses out of service after he was contacted by Scientology attorney Paul B. Johnson, a former prosecutor who said the ads violated a 1945 state law regarding published material that "tends to expose any individual or any religious group to hatred, contempt, ridicule or (abusive language)."

The law says such material must contain the name and post office address of the corporation or person responsible for publishing them. The anti-Scientology bus ads contained only an Internet address.

Since then, the Scientology critics have said they would happily add their name and address so the ads can run again.

But the PSTA board concerned itself Wednesday with the more enduring matter of its own policy, which did not contemplate such a dispute. The policy prohibits ads for tobacco, alcohol and political campaigns.

Scientology attorneys Johnson and Bob Hearn urged the board to tighten its policy and disallow the ads, lest Pinellas County's buses be legally forced to carry racist and other hate messages in the future. By opening the door to all messages, "you're going to have to open it to everyone," Hearn said. "It is a very slippery slope, and it needs to be considered very carefully."

But Dandar argued that the buses are public forums and no policy prevented the ads when they were bought. He said the group of Scientology critics was expressing a viewpoint. "There's no hatred, no malice," Dandar said. "You have violated its civil rights."

Indeed, it is a complicated First Amendment issue that has prompted a variety of court rulings. Last fall, a U.S. appeals court upheld the Phoenix policy, which limits bus ads to strictly commercial messages.

But this month, the U.S. Supreme Court said, in effect, that Philadelphia's transit authority acted improperly when it removed controversial anti-abortion ads that were placed in its subway and rail stations.

Zimmet, the transit attorney in Pinellas, said the courts have allowed restrictions on transit advertising for transit agencies that show their main purpose is to generate revenue and not to favor one viewpoint over another.

The agency contracts with Gateway Outdoor Advertising of Hackettstown, N.J., to sell and install bus ads. Gateway's president Craig P. Heard said Wednesday that his company removes ads whenever there is an "outpouring" of sentiment against them. The company then tries to seek a middle ground, he said.

Gateway would absorb legal costs that arise over the dispute, said Heard, who also cautioned PSTA against retooling its policy and becoming enmeshed in a complicated First Amendment battle. Board member Jack Olsen agreed. "The more we put down (on paper)," he said, "the more our feet are dragged closer and closer to the fire."

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