Bench Controversy Hits Close to Home for Citizens Project
The city of Colorado Springs recently found itself in the middle of controversy regarding freedom of speech in the establishment clause of the first amendment. Charis Christian Center was recently told that their advertising contract for the city-owned benches declaring “Jesus is Lord” would not be renewed. This resulted in threats of legal action by Charis and the mayor’s office announcing that they will continue to allow the advertising citing “freedom of speech.”
This subject is deeply personal for Citizens Project in light of the fact that the city refused to publish our “before and after” awareness campaign from 2013. Click here to read the Gazette coverage from 2013 and to see the awareness campaign click here.
The following letter to the editor was published in the July 4th, 2016 edition of The Gazette in response to the controversy.
Open access to city bus benches
For the last seven years, Citizens Project has launched an annual awareness campaign designed to stimulate thoughtful dialogue on important issues facing our community. These multimedia campaigns reflected our core values as an organization and highlighted our work in the areas of separation of church and state, civic engagement and equal rights.
Some years featured positive, feel-good messages, such as our “It’s a Springs thing”
campaign. Others juxtaposed seemingly disparate concepts in the form of a question, like our “Should hate speech be protected speech?” benches.
During the first few years of the campaigns, our concepts appeared on billboards, in print, on television, and on bus benches.
And then, in 2013, after our ads were approved by the company that manages the benches, the city administration summarily refused to post our campaign without a word of explanation. We surmised, at the time, that the city was concerned about controversy and was confused about whether or not they technically sponsored the messages on the benches.
Given this history, we were stunned to learn that, despite receiving an actual complaint from a passerby about the “Jesus is Lord” bus benches, it was not removed. We fundamentally agree with Mayor John Suthers’ assessment that the benches are likely not a violation of the establishment clause, and we hope that, in his new administration, he is also eliminating arbitrary and inscrutable denials of campaigns on a content basis. Either the government sponsors the speech on bus benches, or it does not.
If it does not, our greatest hope is that paid advertisers – even those with controversial opinions – can enjoy the same access to bus benches as Charis Christian Center.
Anything else, clearly, would be unconstitutional.
– Deb Walker, Colorado Springs