Paul Greenberg

It was a small victory, but in a great cause: freedom of speech. And any victory in such a cause should be noted. And celebrated.

It happened in Little Rock. A group of atheists wanted to advertise on the side of local buses, just as a church might. But the public bus line wanted an unprecedented $36,000 deposit--in addition to $5,200 for the ads--before it would allow this opinion to be voiced on the side of its buses: "Are you good without God? Millions are."

The rationale for putting so high a price on an expression of opinion in America? The signs might be defaced, or the buses even attacked by the less than tolerant in this supposed Land of the Free. And the bus company wanted the money deposited up front. Just in case.

To impose such a burden on Americans for expressing their opinion isn't just constitutionally questionable (there's is that phrase in the First Amendment about freedom of speech) but it's also, well, un-American. The court made the right decision: When a public utility -- like a bus line -- opens a public forum, all comers should be welcome. On the same terms.

The bus line's big mistake? To assume that expressing an opinion in this country is a privilege, not a God-given right. Even and maybe especially for the ungodly. For what kind of faith is it that is so weak it fears letting others express theirs?

Oliver Wendell Holmes expressed much that same thought in a dissenting opinion that still resonates, as well it should. As he put it, "if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought -- not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."

Atheism has its own theology, or rather anti-theology, and it seems to be undergoing a revival or at least a proliferation these days. Nonbelievers can choose from a variety of styles and tones and best-sellers -- the vulgar skepticism of a Sam Harris, the wit of a Christopher Hitchens (who's always a delight to read, however reasonable or un- his views may be), and the more systematic anti-theology of a Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett. You pays your money and expresses your opinion. On radio, television, in a pamphlet or letter to the editor, or just on the side of a bus. It's a free country. Or should be.

Believers come in all styles and denominations, too. And they, too, have every right to express their convictions, yes, even in the public square and in public discourse. (For example, God Bless America!) Their views shouldn't be censored, either. Even in an age of political correctness.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.