FFRF Sues City Over Billboard

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit on Nov. 26 against the City of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., for actions which led to the censorship of FFRF’s “Imagine No Religion” billboard on Archibald and Foothill Blvd, Route 66.

The censorship became a cause celebre in southern California before Thanksgiving, with many area residents contacting the Foundation in support. The Madison, Wis.-based Foundation, a state/church watchdog representing 13,000 nonreligious members, charged the city violated the Foundation’s rights under the Establishment Clause and Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Foundation’s pretty sign was evidently destroyed by General Outdoor Co. after its removal on Nov. 21.

The Foundation had prepaid for the board and contracted for a two-month run beginning in mid-November. The board had been up for less than a week when it was removed at the apparent instigation of Linda Daniels, Rancho Cucamonga Development Director.

Daniels told an area reporter that she had instructed her agency to phone the billboard company to complain that the city had received some 90 complaints, and to ask if there was some way the message could be removed. Daniels later denied asking for removal, but the city admitted it had called to convey the alleged complaints. The city and the billboard company have a history of conflict over billboards, and in the contested interview, Daniels admitted getting the billboard company to remove a previous message the city disliked.

“The bedrock principle underlying the scope of the free speech protection of the First Amendment is that government officials may not interfere with the expression of an idea simply because some persons allegedly consider the idea offensive or disagreeable to their views,” wrote attorney Richard Bolton in the legal complaint, filed by local counsel Robert Seeman.

“The Defendants’ actions conveyed a message that religion is favored, preferred, and promoted by the City of Rancho Cucamonga and its officials, despite subsequent attempts to cover up the Defendants’ involvement in sending an objectively understood message disapproving FFRF’s billboard,” said the Foundation.

“The Defendants’ actions, including by interfering with and contributing to cause FFRF’s message to be removed from the public realm, were undertaken precisely because of the content of FFRF’s message, including the Defendants’ perception that FFRF was expressing an idea that some members of society found offensive or disagreeable.

“The Defendants’ actions, including by interfering with and contributing to cause FFRF’s message to be silenced, were taken under color of law, and in violation of FFRF’s Free Speech rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

“The principal function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute, and such speech may best serve its purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

The Foundation is seeking reasonable compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court, Central District of California.

Freedom From Religion Foundation