Fort Worth Assistant City Manager William Johnson told City Council members and staff that updates to the city’s banner policy have been “well overdue.”
The city’s banner policy, which was adopted in 1998, is a way for nonprofit organizations to place vertical banners in downtown Fort Worth to promote events that are open to the public or are of general interest to the community. During an Aug. 15 city council work session, Johnson and Melinda Ramos, deputy city attorney, presented recommendations to update the banner policy to council members, including a definition of what constitutes an “event” as well as defining allowed and prohibited usage of the program.
Early in the presentation, Johnson told the room that “there were a few issues with some applicants that came forward to utilize our downtown street banners when there was going to be a very small, relatively small event.”
Johnson didn’t specify which event he was referring to, although the presentation on the banner policy comes as the city currently faces a lawsuit from a North Texas nonprofit.
Metroplex Atheists is suing the city after its request to use the city’s banner program for an August event was denied. The group claims that the city said its application “was denied because the event was not of a ‘magnitude’ to qualify.”
Recommendations to the city’s banner policy
Specific definitions for some terms are lacking in the current policy, Ramos said. One of the recommendations Ramos presented to council members was to include a definition of the term ‘event,’ which would mean an “interest to a significant portion of the residents of the city for cultural, civic or major event or program.” The recommendation also defined an event as being “of broad interest to a significant portion of residents of the city and/or tourists,” and have benefits to a governmental agency, generate significant tax revenue or benefit residents.
Also recommended was a definition for the term “nonprofit,” which the presentation defines as a “community organization having current IRS 501(c) status and primarily operating within the city of Fort Worth or proof of substantial work or activities conducted in the city.”
The presentation also included recommendations to specify what is considered “allowed usage” of the banner program such as events hosted or co-sponsored by the city, events that benefit the city, events that promote educational institutions and others. Along with allowed usage recommendations, Ramos also presented recommendations to the policy to include banners that are prohibited to include.
“Prohibited usage” of the banner program could include, but are not limited to, messages with political, religious or public issue advertising, messages with profane language or personal attacks or banners that would “constitute a hazard to traffic or safety.”
Metroplex Atheists vs. City of Fort Worth
The organization filed the civil complaint July 17, alleging that the decision infringes upon Metroplex Atheists’ freedom of speech, establishment and exercise of religion, according to the complaint. The lawsuit asked for a preliminary injunction, or an early, short-term decision if the banners can be displayed for the event, which was denied by District Judge Reed O’Connor on Aug. 6.
The City of Fort Worth responded to Metroplex Atheists’ lawsuit on Aug. 2., stating that the city “advised Downtown Fort Worth, Inc.’s personnel that the City of Fort Worth objected to permitting Metroplex Atheists to place banners because the event being held by Metroplex Atheists was very small,” and “magnitude”/size requirement applied by Johnson (acting on behalf of the City in his capacity as Assistant City Manager over the City’s Department of Transportation and Public Works) was neither content- nor viewpoint-based.”
American Atheists, a national organization representing Metroplex Atheists in the lawsuit, released a statement following O’Connor’s decision to deny a preliminary injunction.
“This is a temporary setback. We will continue our lawsuit on behalf of all the atheists who have suffered discrimination—in Fort Worth, in Texas, and all throughout our country,” Umair Khan, Metroplex Atheists president said in the statement. “We deserve the same rights and respect as all other groups, and that’s what this lawsuit has always been about.”
Metroplex Atheists plans to march with banners at 10 a.m. Aug. 19 along the streets of downtown Fort Worth.
As for the lawsuit, a decision is still pending from O’Connor.
Geoffrey Blackwell, litigation counsel for American Atheists legal center said “as the case progresses through discovery and, potentially, motions for summary judgment, that will change but there is no strict timeline for this process.”
Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member, covering faith for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @marissaygreene.
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