Skepticism

Skepchick Quickies, 11.26

Jen

Jen is a writer and web designer/developer in Columbus, Ohio. She spends too much time on Twitter at @antiheroine.

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19 Comments

  1. I’m offended that Christians are offended by that billboard. And if they are offended by the fact that I’m offended… well that just makes me even more offended!

    If there was a way to harness offense as a source of energy we would have no need to continue research into fusion power.

  2. It’s really no surprise if you’ve never been to Rancho Cucamonga, well really don’t, but should you break down on the 210 or 15 freeway it won’t take long to see why people there are believers. They have to, the place is such a craphole their belief keeps them hoping there’s a better life in the afterlife. With out that hope they’d probably all off them selves.

  3. I’ve gotten in the habit of screaming “First Amendment Violation!” way too often, but I think that this one qualifies. A municipality asks (pressures) a private company to remove a sign that addresses a religious believe (religious nonbelief?).
    It seems to me that, if the company had received consumer complaints and decided to remove the sign then they would be in the clear. However, a complaint from the city government is not the same as a consumer complaint and smacks of censorship whether that was intended or not.
    From the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s press release about the issue (http://www.ffrf.org/news/2008/censorship.php), it does not appear that they plan a court challenge. They are asking people to contact General Outdoors – the billboard company – to complain and are urging local freethinkers to “to plaster the valley with our message”.

  4. @durnett: The article indicates that the city simply asked, and it was within the discretion of the company to remove it. Where is the “pressure”? Where is the state action? The billboard company can do whatever it wants (subject to damages for breaching the contract) and it will want to avoid vandalism on its billboards, and a bunch of protectors (non-paying customers) are not going to change that.

  5. @TheSkepticalMale: A request coming from an authority is considered differently than a request coming from a non-authority. At least that is my understanding from the prayer in public school cases.

    For instance: if a student invites fellow students to stand up and pray at lunch, then there is no undue pressure; however, if the school principal invites the students to stand up and pray, then that is endorsement of religion because of the principal’s authority in relation to the students.

    If the city is the licensing authority for the billboard company, then a request – no matter how nicely it is phrased – would be perceived as pressure.

    As to the protests of the non-paying customers, the billboard company is not directly exposed, but like a TV station, it is exposed through its clients. If protesters circulated a list of all of General Outdoors clients and asked people to refrain from using their products and contacted the clients directly to let them know that this was happening, the clients would voice their concerns to General Outdoors which might reconsider its position.

    Please note: I’m not a lawyer and have no special knowledge at all in legal matters. I’m just a trouble maker.

  6. @TheSkepticalMale: I’m not sure if you read Durnett’s comment carefully enough. Durnett already made the point that “if the company had received consumer complaints and decided to remove the sign then they would be in the clear.” Had the entire matter been handled privately, while we may disagree with the company’s decision, it would not be a legal issue at all. However, it’s not the city government’s place to even relay such a complaint. Their response to the complaints should have been that, legally, the billboard owners are protected by the right to free speech, and that all complaints should be directed to the company itself. With the intervention of a government body on behalf of a religious interest, I think we are getting into First Amendment violation territory.

  7. @durnett: There is absolutely no case law whatsoever for the proposition that a request is tantamount to coercion ( “a request – no matter how nicely it is phrased – would be perceived as pressure”). And the reason is simple: municipal governments have to be able to negotiate with (as opposed to coerce) private land owners all the time (e.g., to obtain utility easements, etc.), including churches, for a variety of reasons without the flag of the First Amendment being waved. In this case, I am not even sure what action the city could take within the scope of the licensing terms (as they are limited to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions, constitutionally speaking) – i.e., from where would the power of “coercion” come? Furthermore, the billboard company is certainly not in the situation of a child being compelled by law to attend a public school.

    In any case, the company (a private landowner) has an interest in not having its own sign destroyed (i.e., by the religulous). In this case, they may not have realized that it was going to be that controversial until the city informed them of the complaints, and under these circumstances, I would not presume anything – I would give them a proverbial break. That’s just my opinion.

  8. @Jen:

    However, it’s not the city government’s place to even relay such a complaint. Their response to the complaints should have been that, legally, the billboard owners are protected by the right to free speech, and that all complaints should be directed to the company itself. With the intervention of a government body on behalf of a religious interest, I think we are getting into First Amendment violation territory.

    The city can regulate time, place, and manner of any speech constitutionally – e.g., to avoid vandalism. In any case, you are both making the argument (assumption) that the city has no rights to tell the billboard company what to do, and then you are implying that by merely making the request, the city is “coercing.” Well, which is it? If the city has no rights under the license, where is the “coercive” power coming from?

  9. @TheSkepticalMale: Darn it! You are making too much sense!

    I was all ready to feel outraged at an abuse of power, but you are right about the municipality needing the freedom to negotiate. It isn’t as claer cut as I had hoped.

    I guess this is why the Freedom From Religion folks are not talking about filing a suit.

    I’m not sure where you are getting the vandalism angle from. I didn’t see any threats of vandalism in the article.

  10. @TheSkepticalMale: The coercive power is coming from complaining citizens. The city government is not coercing, but they are letting these citizens use governmental authority to coerce.

    Of course cities negotiate and work with private companies for the city’s needs. My point is that in this case, there is no need. There is absolutely nothing stopping these offended citizens from complaining directly to the company who owns the billboard. It’s not necessary for the city to get involved – except for the fact that the complainers know that a request from The City Government rather than a scattered group of individuals carries that much more weight and will get more attention in the news, thus creating even more weight. The coercion is not explicit, but implied.

  11. TheSkepticalMale is at the airport, so I’m typing his response for him (sent to me via text):

    @Jen: We don’t know what the content or veracity of those 90 complaints submitted to the city … In any case, it is apparent from the city’s other requests that they are not just picking on the atheists.

    And, once again, a city merely asking a party to remove a sign (whether citizens act or not) is not actionable coercion – especially when (a) there is nothing in the article to suggest that the city has power to back up the “threat” (remember the First Amendment?) and (b) the city has made the same requests with respect to religious-neutral signs (ie, no freedom from religion argument).

    @durnett: Happy Thanksgiving!

  12. It doesn’t matter what the content or veracity of the complaints are – the content and veracity would be the same regardless of who received them, the city government or the private company. It’s still up to the company to make the judgment on them.

    It also doesn’t matter whether the complainers are religious or not – if a bunch of atheists complained about a private company’s Christmas display, the city would still be out of line by bringing their influence to ask the company to remove it.

    I realize the city has no real, legal authority to demand a certain action of a private company. Of course they don’t. That’s exactly why they shouldn’t be involved with it at all.

  13. I’ve worked in corporate (private through Fortune 500) departments for a long time and have had access to most details of complaints that have been registered. All companies examine each complaint lodged. They also assign weight based on the source and nature of the complaint.

    From a property management perspective (5,300+ units at 21 properties in 2 states – mostly in Orange County, CA), if 90 out of 170,000 (the population of Rancho Cucamonga) come forward individually and ask that you change something, that’s one thing. Nothing will change. If a municipality contacts the corporation and says “We’ve had some complaints, and we’re asking that you make a change.”, you can bet all you own and all you know that the corporation will comply with the municipalities request. Whether such is right or wrong is not a subject I am willing to debate at this time.

    I’ve never lived in a place where billboards weren’t vandalized. The billboard companies, I’m sure, know exactly what the risk is of placing each and every kind of billboard before they accept the contract.

    This is a very suspicious situation. I’m thinking that by targeting the city with the complaints, some particular individual(s) knew they could have the billboard taken down

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