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UTA, atheists battle over ads

Published January 27, 2012 4:12 pm

GRAMA • Group trying to determine if it is being treated differently than others by transit agency.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ads on buses and trains are seen by thousands of people a day. But the Utah Transit Authority tried to deny an open-records law request by an atheist group for a copy of all such ads accepted by the agency, arguing that might violate copyright laws.

But when the State Records Committee heard an appeal by the American Humanist Association, the AHA agreed to an offer by UTA to let it view the ads in its offices instead of providing copies. "It's not like those ads are secret. People see them on buses every day," said William Burgess, attorney for the AHA.

He said his group wants to see the ads because it questions whether UTA violated its own policies when it denied an ad proposed by the Utah Coalition of Reason that would have said, "Don't believe in God? You're not alone," and listed its Web page.

UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter said UTA's policies require that ads pertain to a commercial transaction, unless the message comes from a government agency. He said the ad did not meet that criteria.

But the AHA said its members have seen ads on UTA buses and trains from churches, so Burgess asked to see all ads accepted by UTA "to see if it has been consistent in its policies, or if it has violated our First Amendment rights."

Carpenter said church ads may have been allowed, as long as they involved some sort of commercial transaction — such as offering a CD or selling some product. He said UTA feels it has been consistent in applying its policies.

About why it initially denied the AHA's request under the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), he said, "We don't own the copyright on those ads. ... There was some question about whether it would violate copyright law."

ldavidson@sltrib.com