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Public service ads banned from buses

The transit authority limits ads to "commercial transactions" after anti-Scientology messages draw church protest.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 1999


LARGO -- Pinellas County's transit agency has decided its buses will not be a "public forum" for advertisers.

The agency's board voted unanimously Wednesday to allow bus ads that propose only "a commercial transaction." The decision means that public service messages traditionally bought by such groups as the Salvation Army and the United Way no longer will be allowed.

Opponents of the measure called it a violation of the First Amendment and said they probably will challenge it in court.

The decision came after the agency found itself caught in cross-fire between the Church of Scientology and a group of church critics who bought anti-Scientology bus ads one weekend in early December.

Eleven messages about Scientology were featured on 10 buses in Clearwater that weekend. They included "Think for Yourself. Quit Scientology" and "Why does Scientology lie to its members?"

Church officials and their lawyers complained so forcefully that Roger Sweeney, director of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, pulled all 10 buses off the road that Saturday with two days left on the critics' contract.

At the time, Sweeney was responding to a state law cited by Scientology's lawyers. The law prohibits anonymous hate messages against religious groups. The anti-Scientology group had failed to puts its name and address on the ads.

Later, a debate arose over whether the anti-Scientology messages were allowed under the transit agency's long-standing policy on bus ads. The policy prohibited ads for tobacco, alcohol and political campaigns but did not address the ads in question. Wednesday's decision tightened that policy.

The new policy would not allow the anti-Scientology messages in the future. Nor would it allow the church's advertising.

Scientology frequently advertises on billboards, in magazines and on television. And shortly after the anti-Scientology ads appeared in December, the church moved to shut out any repeat ads when it inquired about buying all of the transit agency's ads for the next two months at a cost of about $70,000.

The offending ads were bought by Former Scientologists Speaking Out, whose members are critical of Scientology practices.

Frank Oliver, the group's spokesman, said after Wednesday's decision, "It is regrettable that this issue will have to be settled through litigation."

He said the board acted too quickly to appease the church, which he accused of pressuring the bus agency and "using the law as a tool to suppress someone's rights."

The church, on the other hand, encouraged the board to vote the way it did. Longtime Scientology attorney Paul B. Johnson praised the board for deliberating "in a very careful way" and said the decision was "a sound one in keeping with the law."

He said there was no pressure from Scientology.

Alan Zimmet, the transit agency's attorney, advised the board that public bus agencies can restrict their advertising if they have a track record of doing it reasonably and in the course of trying to produce income. In instances where agencies have been able to make such a case, the courts have declared their ad space to be a "non-public forum," Zimmet said.

But transit agencies are vulnerable to challenge when they have a history of opening their ad space to "a wide variety of speech," such as political or public issue messages, he said.

Zimmet said he thinks the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is in the first category. He also said Gateway Outdoor Advertising, which places ads for the agency, will bear the brunt of any legal action.

Gateway president Craig P. Heard said the new policy affects 15-20 15 percent to 20 percent of the advertising market for bus ads. The company will be consulting with the transit agency often to help interpret the policy, he said.

For example, the company is unsure whether Health Department ads for federal housing will be considered a "commercial transaction." The same problem arises with a local Baptist church that often advertises a book, he said.

Those could be "lost opportunities" for Gateway and the transit agency, Heard said. He added, however, that he was "pleased with the outcome" Wednesday and said his company would talk with the agency about increasing advertising possibilities.

Under its contract with Gateway, the transit agency this year will get 55 percent of sales on bus ads or $150,000, whichever number is higher.

One certain casualty of the new policy will be ads such as those that now appear on Pinellas buses for the Salvation Army. They read, "Your Gift Keeps on Giving" and "God Bless You."

They were part of a multimedia campaign that boosted contributions at Salvation Army kettles by 23 percent during the holiday season, said Charles Coles, development director for the Salvation Army of South Pinellas County.

Told of the new policy, Coles said, "I'm sorry to hear that."

Non-profit groups enhance the community, he said. "I would hope that fact is recognized in the policies of those who make these decisions."

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