If you’re planning to ride public transportation in Broken Arrow, Okla., you better bring a book, because striking up a conversation with someone might land you curbside.
The Broken Arrow Bus Service, or BABS, regulates the behavior of its passengers, forbidding them from eating, drinking, fighting or using vulgar language while on the bus.
On its website the city lists these “safety rules,” but fails to mention a public-speech policy that is actively enforced.
Regular passengers Vincenza Siano and her daughter, Lucretia Bacon, were handed a copy of the policy last month. It states: “No public speech will be allowed on the bus, which may include but is not necessarily limited to religion, politics, economics or finance.”
Passengers who break the rules face “removal.”
The bus, which is actually an 11-passenger van, is the only form of public transportation in the city and deals primarily with handicapped and low-income residents in need of regular transportation.
Siano and Bacon typically ride the bus two to three times a week. They’re accustomed to discussing a wide range of topics including their religious faith. But after learning about the policy they ceased talking out of fear of being tossed.
While they may be silent on the bus, the two are speaking out against the restrictive policy in court. The American Center for Law and Justice, an international public interest law firm, filed a federal lawsuit Thursday on their behalf challenging it.
“This is a policy that chills free speech and violates the constitutional rights of passengers,” said Francis J. Manion, senior counsel of the law center. “While it is proper for the city to ensure that public transportation is safe and secure for its citizens, it cannot censor the speech of passengers simply because that speech is religious in nature.”
The suit contends the policy is unconstitutional and violates the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. It asks the federal court to declare the public-speech provision of the policy unconstitutional and grant an injunction to prevent it from being enforced.
“I think they sued the wrong people and they don’t understand what the policy intends to do,” city attorney Michael Vanderburg told WorldNetDaily.
Vanderburg explained the city contracts with the Gateway Foundation, a local charity, to run the bus service. He said the charity picks the bus and drivers and provides maintenance for an annual flat rate. The city controls the rates charged and the hours of operation.
As for the public-speech policy, Vanderburg said he didn’t know anything about it until he started getting calls from the media.
“We didn’t adopt the policy, and we don’t enforce it,” he said.
Although he has yet to see the wording of the policy, Vanderburg said it was “intended and interpreted to prevent the bus from becoming a public forum” by riders seeking to hold fellow passengers captive to political speeches. He stresses it wasn’t intended to stifle private conversations held in a normal tone of voice.
Vanderburg said the city will be defending itself on that basis.
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