Stella Case No. 056, Originally Published: 18 June 2003
Gail Anderson, 56, was riding the bus in Milwaukee, Wisc., and was on a mission: she was proselytizing her religion to other passengers, trying to press literature and The Book of Hope bibles on them.
When the driver asked her to stop, she refused. The driver again asked her to stop, telling her that county rules prohibited the distribution of “any form of advertising or literature” on the transit system. She again refused and was “escorted” off the bus.
Anderson has filed a federal suit in Milwaukee’s U.S. District Court claiming violation of her rights to free speech and freedom of religion against the Milwaukee County Department of Public Works, the DPW’s transit division, and Milwaukee Transport Services Inc., which operates the county transit system. She has asked the court to declare the county rule invalid and award her unspecified damages.
“Forcefully removing Ms Anderson from the bus because she distributed the Bible was a humiliating experience,” claims her attorney, Mathew D. Staver. “Passengers don’t shed their constitutional rights when they enter public transportation venues.”
Freedom of speech is a primary right in the United States, but since when did it include the right to force others to listen? By insinuating herself upon a captive audience, she ignored the responsibilities that go hand in hand with her rights. The answer to “What Would Jesus Do?” is not “File a lawsuit!”
- “Bible Donor Sues after Driver Kicks Her Off Bus,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 10 June 2003.
The case, of course, was thrown out — U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Adelman granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment — and Anderson appealed. Thus, the decision of the United States Court of Appeals (Seventh Circuit) was easy to find.
“She doesn’t drive a car and so is a regular customer on Milwaukee’s buses,” the summary began. “But she is not, it would appear, your typical bus rider. As anyone who rides buses in urban communities knows, most passengers mind their own business.”
I love it when judges are excellent writers! Apparently in this case, it was Circuit Judge Terence T. Evans.
Driver Rozell Smith, the court notes, told Anderson to stop, and “Smith did not know the book contained religious material.” The transit dispatcher, when sending security officers, mentioned, “Female on board trying to hand out booklets. I don’t know if they’re religious or political, or what, but no solicitation allowed on our buses whatsoever.” Even when the bus was intercepted, and two security officers escorted her off the bus to talk, “At that point, they did not know what she was handing out,” the judge summarizes.
Conclusion: no one was targeting Ms Anderson because her literature was religious in nature. That’s important because “Restrictions must be viewpoint-neutral and reasonable. In other words, restrictions need only pass the test of reasonableness so long as they are not an attempt to stifle a viewpoint based on its content.”
“Common sense must not be and should not be suspended when judging the constitutionality of a rule or statute,” Evans wrote, and Anderson’s arguments “fall short of convincing us that the tariff [which outline the bus service’s rules] is unconstitutionally vague.”
“Ms. Anderson,” the judges concluded, “has failed in her attack on the tariff, and accordingly we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.”
Update Source: “Gail Anderson, Plaintiff-appellant, v. Milwaukee County and Milwaukee Transport Services, Inc., Defendants-appellees”, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (433 F.3d 975), Decided 11 January 2006. Via Justia.
My 2021 Thoughts on the Case
Anderson’s case was argued by attorney Mathew D. Staver, President and General Counsel of Liberty Counsel. “Liberty Counsel is a Christian ministry that proclaims, advocates, supports, advances, and defends the good news that God in the person of Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins and offers forgiveness and eternal life to all who accept him as Lord and Savior,” their web site says, and seek to advance “religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the family through strategic litigation.”
Their “strategy” seems to be based on attempts to force captive audiences to be proselytized by zealots. Thank goodness judges have a Constitution to guide their decisions.
Elaine, a Canadian attorney (who was quick to point out “but NO not THAT Elaine!”) responds to a letter published earlier:
Elaine in Alberta: “I have to respond to Bob from Kentucky who laments the inadequacies of the ‘legal system’. He complains that participants seem to think it only matters ‘how you play the game’.
Although in Canada I think we do not have quite the same magnitude of problems with frivolous lawsuits as seems to be the case in the United States, silly lawsuits filed by people with exaggerated views of their own entitlement are a plague on any legal system. Lawyers are often to blame for encouraging these people and the legal profession should engage in a vigorous debate about their own responsibility in all of this.
But it is not fair to criticize the legal profession for emphasizing the importance of ‘playing by the rules of the game’. As a lawyer, I believe in the concept of procedural fairness. If you set up a system to resolve disputes, with checks and balances and rules to ensure that parties are guaranteed a process that is fair and equitable, then the results of that process are much more likely to be fair and equitable than would otherwise be the case.
This will sometimes result in silly cases getting a hearing where any reasonable person would never have allowed it to go before a court. This will also sometimes result in litigious plaintiffs getting favourable judgements in circumstances where any objective outsider can do nothing but roll their eyes in disbelief. It will also result in unusual and unprecedented cases getting a fair hearing and breaking new ground.
It is more likely to provide basic justice to ordinary people than a system where the process can change radically from case to case. The system may have some deep flaws. But we cannot set up a system that presupposes that large numbers of cases are without merit and should be screened out in advance without giving someone the authority to make those decisions. This would do nothing more than add another level of bureaucracy to an already heavily bureaucratized system.
Bob recognizes that every time he gets to this level of thinking about matters, the solution seems to be worse than the problem. With my knowledge of civil litigation, I would suggest that the parties involved need to accept their own responsibility for ensuring that existing procedures are applied fairly and firmly. Many silly cases could be thrown out of court using existing rules, and defendants’ lawyers need to be rigourous in their use of existing rules to challenge cases that are quite clearly without any merit.
Judges need to recognize their responsibility to ensure that they do not encourage frivolous lawsuits by careless and cowardly rulings. I suspect too that the American system of contingency fees and cost orders is partially to blame for the magnitude of your problem. Now there is something that could be addressed.”
Well argued, counselor, and just part of the reason why I say there are no easy solutions to the frivolous lawsuit problem.
- - -
No new cases are being published, so please don’t try to submit cases.
While there are no new cases coming, all of the previously published cases are returning to this site over time. You can subscribe to notifications as those classic cases are posted, scheduled for Mondays and Thursdays. Click here for a Stella Awards subscribe form.
Meanwhile, my flagship email publication This is True does continue to come out with new stories every week. It’s “Thought-Provoking Entertainment” like Stella, but uses weird-but-true news items as its vehicle for social commentary. It is the oldest entertainment newsletter online — weekly since 1994. Click here for a This is True subscribe form.