Church's complaints take buses off road
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 9, 1998
LEARWATER -- Pinellas County's transit chief pulled 10 buses off the road Sunday after the Church of Scientology complained that the vehicles' side panels contained anti-Scientology advertising.
The ads were purchased by church critics and were to be on buses Saturday through Monday as part of a weekend-long protest against Scientology.
Each of the 11 ads carried a different message. Among them: "Think for Yourself. Quit Scientology," "Find out why so many people oppose Dianetics and Scientology" and "Why does Scientology lie to its members?"
Scientology representatives began phoning the homes of transit and Clearwater city officials after the buses began rolling Saturday morning. The church argued that the ads violated a 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.
"Until I could get a legal opinion one way or the other, I wasn't going to take any chances . . . I wasn't going to put the buses back on the road," said Roger Sweeney, executive director of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
Sweeney said he received several calls Saturday from Mary Story, a Scientology official in Clearwater, and Paul Johnson, a Tampa lawyer who has represented Scientology for years. Board members of the PSTA also had been contacted, he said.
"I just wanted to cool things down a little bit," Sweeney said. "My phone was ringing off the hook."
He said replacing the offending buses with other buses posed no problems because of Sunday's light schedule.
Others who were contacted by Scientology on Saturday included Clearwater City Attorney Pam Akin and Alan Zimmet, attorney for the PSTA. Zimmet said Story showed up at his home.
Story was trying to find "anybody she could raise" to express concern about the signs, said Marty Rathbun, a top Scientology official. "There were no heavy-handed tactics."
Rathbun said of the ads: "I think anybody can see that they're extremely inflammatory."
About 50 Scientology critics showed up for the weekend protest, which focused on Lisa McPherson, whose 1995 death while in the care of fellow Scientologists resulted last month in criminal charges against the church.
Rathbun said ads were part of "an unprecedented level of taunting" against Scientologists. "I think they went out of bounds in terms of inciting hatred toward Scientologists and inciting Scientologists to react in some fashion," he said.
Had the church engaged in the same activity, it would have been skewered by the media, Rathbun said. "You might as well have no rights as far as we're concerned."
The ads were placed on buses traveling past Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater, where the protest was centered.
They were purchased by a group called Former Scientologists Speaking Out, which had its three-day advertising contract cut short, said Frank Oliver, a former Scientologist and a Scientology critic who heads the Miami graphics company that designed the ads. He would not disclose the names of individuals who run the group.
He said the text on the ads consisted of questions and statements that can be backed up by former Scientologists. They are no less critical of Scientology than Scientology is when it smears its critics, Oliver said.
"None of those statements are inflammatory in any way," he said. "They don't have a leg to stand on. They're grasping at straws."
Sweeney said he referred the matter to Gateway Outdoor Advertising, the company that sells and installs bus ads for the agency. He also said he fully expected a legal challenge, in which case he would seek an opinion from the Florida Attorney General.
"You think they're going to sit still?" Sweeney said. "I don't think so."
Oliver said the group that placed the ads had not decided how to proceed. "Obviously the contract was violated, but I think our point was made," he said.
In a Pinellas County Commission meeting Tuesday, Commissioner Calvin Harris said it was "bad public policy" for the transit agency to post "political" ads.
Clearwater City Commissioner Bob Clark, a PSTA board member, said he was disturbed when he saw the ads Saturday on a bus on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. "We don't want attacks on any individuals or groups" on bus ads, Clark said. "Whether you agree with Scientology or not, that's just inappropriate in my mind. It got my blood pressure up a couple of points."
Clark said, coincidentally, the PSTA board discussed its advertising contract last week and he understood that it forbade political ads on PSTA buses.
But Sweeney said the contract refers only to campaign ads. He said he read the anti-Scientology ads. Under the contract, he said, "I don't know how anybody can construe that as political."