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1/4/2010 - January 2010 SLI Educational Update - Morality in Advertising

AN EDUCATIONAL UPDATE FROM

THE SOUTHEAST LAW INSTITUTE™, INC.

To: SLI Supporters

Date: January 2010

From: A. Eric Johnston

Re: Morality in Advertising[1]

What does a Christian company do when it is asked to support something that violates its fundamental beliefs, viz., abortion, atheism, etcetera? Abortion and faith issues have been with us for a number of years. However, we are seeing a significant increase in the acceptability and, therefore, public display of homosexual information.

Advertising is a way of life for all of us. It is how we find or identify something in which we have an interest. It is how merchants hawk their wares and how we let others know what we are thinking. It is knowledge in the information highway. It is speech.

The internet has revolutionized advertising. Even so, newspapers, magazines and billboards are advertising sites. Advertising on the internet is different from traditional methods. Likely as not, the advertiser will create his own website, and may join with search engines or other services, to draw your attention to it. Like traditional providers, internet advertising services are usually provided by private companies.

What happens when we want to advertise, but our request is rejected? Or, what happens when we object to disagreeable ads? First, it depends on whether the provider is public or nonpublic.

Take city buses as an example. These are owned and operated by governmental entities, usually cities. They are prohibited from free speech discrimination. When the American Humanist Association placed ads on the Washington, D.C. Metro buses in September 2008 saying “Why believe in God? Just be good for goodness sake,” hundreds of complaints were filed. As a public provider, D.C. Metro had no choice but to accept the advertising. The response was a later bus ad by the Center for Family Development which said “Why believe? Because I created you and I love you, for goodness sake – GOD.” This is free speech in action.

But, what about a privately owned newspaper that rejects an ad? The one that comes to mind was by a pro-life group that proposed to show graphic pictures of aborted children. It was shocking, but it would have gotten the message across. The newspaper had the right to reject the ad.

Similarly, when atheist groups The Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Alabama Freethought Association wanted to run an ad, like on the D.C. Metro buses, but on a billboard in Birmingham, Alabama, a private company, Lamar Advertising, rejected the ad. However, another private company later put the ad on its billboard.

Recently, an online publication (www.examiner.com/Birmingham) located in many cities, including Birmingham, published an article about putting up gay billboards in Birmingham similar to those found in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. One billboard shows a picture of Jesus saying, “Jesus affirmed a gay couple. Matthew 8:5-13;” another said, “The early church welcomed a gay man. Acts 8:26-40;” while a third pictured two women saying, “Ruth loved Naomi as Adam loved Eve. Genesis 2:24; Ruth 1:14.” Each of the billboards included the question, “Would Jesus Discriminate?” What will or must billboard companies do here?

The principle is that a private provider can accept or reject ads based on its own personal judgment or values. This is not censorship. On the other hand, a government provider cannot reject ads, unless the content is unlawful. Speaking of the latter, a small Alabama town asked us what it could do about a private company advertising sex toys on billboards. We advised, because the ads are not unlawful, the city could do nothing. While billboards can be regulated for safety reasons, i.e., proximity to highways, sight distances, etcetera, it cannot discriminate on the basis of content.

On the bright side, Christian businesses cannot be required to advertise pornography, atheism, homosexuality or other objectionable things. But, as with so many things in the public square, community values will ultimately dictate the content of advertising, public or private. No one stays where they are not wanted, it is not fun or profitable. What are the values in your community?

If you are like those who opposed the atheist ads on D.C. Metro buses, be vigilant for such ads. We may see more atheist ads and homosexual ads, particularly in the larger population areas in Alabama and the South. If you see those ads, why not respond with an ad? Better yet, why not go ahead and purchase some billboard space and make some pro-active positive statements? Join with others to purchase ads expressing your values. Remember, advertising is putting knowledge on the information highway. By doing so, you inform your community of its values. Be a leader for, as well as, a defender of our traditional moral and religious values.


[1] In September 2009, we did an interview on this subject with the apologetics ministry, Crosswinds. Check their website at http://crosswindsfoundation.org.

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