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Christian group sues PSTA over ad space

Focus on the Family says its ads for a "preventing homosexuality'' seminar were illegally rejected.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001


TAMPA -- Last year, Focus on the Family wanted to place ads in Pinellas County bus shelters promoting an upcoming seminar about "addressing, understanding and preventing homosexuality in youth."

The advertisements were rejected.

The Colorado-based Christian group thinks that decision was a violation of free speech rights and filed a federal lawsuit Thursday to force the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to accept the ads.

"In this case, the government cannot pick and choose which ads they want and which they don't," said Mathew Staver, an Orlando lawyer representing Focus. "They cannot discriminate just because they think the content is controversial."

Focus on the Family is not seeking money, but wants a judge to tell the PSTA to allow it to place similar ads for a seminar this summer. "We don't want this to keep happening," said Staver, who works with Liberty Counsel, a legal organization that takes on free speech and other constitutional issues.

Officials with the PSTA could not be reached for comment.

Focus scheduled the seminar, called Love Won Out, for February 2000. They paid $4,959 to have posters installed on the shelters for four weeks leading up to the seminar. The posters initially went up but were then removed because of the language "preventing homosexuality," the lawsuit states. Focus received a full refund.

PSTA allows the advertising company in charge of providing the space in the shelter to "reject any advertising material . . . which the company deems to be in bad taste or to be in violation of the existing laws, offensive to the moral standards of the community or false, misleading or deceptive."

The suit argues, however, that the government cannot arbitrarily decide which non-commercial advertisements to run once it opens up space for purchase. PSTA faced a similar controversy in 1999 when ads for the Church of Scientology were pulled from buses because of concerns over their content. The authority eventually adopted a policy that non-commercial ads would not be allowed on buses.

Private billboard owners can decide what they want to have on their billboards, Staver said. And ads that espouse illegal acts or are considered obscene do not have the same constitutional protections. But ads in government space cannot be banned just because they might offend certain residents, he said.

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