Why are American Atheist Convention Billboards being censored? The Controversy Explained

Image courtesy of American Atheists.

American Atheists are up in arms that their promotional billboard has been subject to censorship in America’s heartland.

American Atheists makes the case that the more common religious persecution happening in this country is at the hands of the religious. Perhaps taking advantage of the holiday lull in hotel occupancy rates, the American Atheists are holding their National Convention at the Peabody Hotel the first weekend of April—otherwise known to the Christian majority as Easter weekend. To promote this event, to be held in Memphis, Tennessee, the group rented billboards in Memphis and Nashville. Along with a picture of a happy child wearing bunny ears at an Easter egg hunt, the billboards read: “An atheist convention on Easter weekend? Looks like we’re skipping church again!”

Controversy arose when Outfront Media—the agency contracted to place the ads—permitted them to run in Memphis, but requested a revision for the Nashville market. The reason given was that it seemed “too aggressive against Christians,” and included directions to take the words “church” and “Easter” out of the ad. The copy that eventually cleared says, “Hop over to Memphis for the biggest gathering of atheists in the country!”

Censored American Atheists Billboard

American Atheists President David Silverman called this a “double standard” and characterized it as censorship, not to mention ridiculous. In another conversation, Danielle Muscato, a representative of the American Atheists, called the refusal “absurd” and claimed it “discriminatory.” Muscato cited a billboard in Nashville, calling gay sex an “abomination,” as evidence of the double standard allowing conservative Christian culture to be aggressive against those of other beliefs.

Yet nobody can be surprised that the anti-religion group may have met with resistance on their way to holding a big meeting in the backyard of the most entrenched religious conservatives in America. President Silverman even admitted as much. “This is exactly why we are coming to the Bible Belt-we go where we are needed; it could not be more clear that we are needed here.”

In their defense, Outfront Media pointed out that the organization’s ads have been run in these markets in the past, that in fact one of the two markets was deemed appropriate for the ad, and that the organization was still permitted to run the revised ad. The nature of this response seems to suggest that this may have been more of a simple business practice than a targeted alienation attempt. Perhaps the media company simply knows its market, and wants the messages, which it is paid to place, to have the best return on investment for its clients. And perhaps, in the interest of not alienating its customer base in that particular market, the media company chose to enforce a policy of not making fun of another religious group. Just a couple of words were able to make a message less jarring to the known market demographic.

A new set of billboards was put on display last week, targeting ex-Muslims. In a similar fashion to the previous ads, in Arabic text, the billboard reads: “An atheist convention featuring Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Easter weekend? Looks like we’re skipping mosque again!”

At its heart, the point the atheist group is trying to get across is that America is intended to support freedom of religion. And unless people of all religions—or no religion—are permitted the right to free speech and advertising as much as anyone else, then all the religious groups get to look forward to receiving increasing pressure and “censorship” against being able to speak in public. Including the conservative Christians of the Bible Belt.


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