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Wild Willy’s bus ad upsets Locals

VISALIA, California — A Visalia school trustee thinks it’s wrong that city buses can display ads for sex shops but not for churches.

The ad that caught the eye — and the ire — of Visalia Unified trustee Mike Lane was for Wild Willy’s, a Goshen business that touts its adult novelties and its motto (the “Funnest Place in Tulare County”) on the back of Bus No. 6244, which travels various city bus routes.

Although the city ads policy allows for adult businesses, it prohibits ads for churches — even those churches that help underwrite transit service. The policy is at odds with the policies of other Valley transit agencies.

Pastor Bob Grenier of Visalia Calvary Church said the Reaching Youth ministry, a Christian organization started by the church, helped fund the city-operated Loop bus that ferries youths from schools to a community center.

Because of its contribution, it was invited to put its Reaching Youth logo on the bus, but was asked to remove the legend “John 3:16-17” from its logo.

“It’s just sad,” Grenier said.

Lane said the transit agency, Visalia City Coach, seems to be discriminating.

“John 3:16 is not allowed, yet Wild Willy’s is accommodated. It seems that the faith community is being pushed out of the public square,” he said.

It may seem innocent to accept a church ad, but “suppose you get Satanic Worship of America or something,” said Transit Manager Monty Cox. “We don’t want anyone to stop riding our buses because they’re offended.”

Cox said the city had no choice but to accept the Wild Willy’s ad.

“It’s a legal business in our service area,” he said.

But the fuss over that ad could force the city to change its policy. After receiving several complaints about the Wild Willy’s ad, including one from Visalia City Council Member Don Landers, the city attorney will review the policy, Cox said.

An American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in Los Angeles said the city could probably make a case to reject the Wild Willy’s ad.

The law is “mixed” when it comes to freedom of speech for bus ads, ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg said. Judges usually view city buses as “a nonpublic forum” not entitled to the same free-speech guarantees someone would have on a sidewalk or public place. Most judges would probably defer to a city that rejects an ad if “the city has made a reasoned judgment.”

The city is probably also allowed to reject a church ad, or an ad for the ACLU or National Rifle Association, as long as its policy states “we’re only going to allow commercial ads selling products,” Eliasberg said. In fact, the city’s policy states almost exactly that: “It is VCC’s policy to only accept advertising related to the sales of goods and services.”

Visalia seems to be bucking a trend among Central Valley transit agencies, however.

Fresno Area Express and Clovis Transit Service allow church ads, but not adult store ads. Fresno and Clovis have identical written policies prohibiting “sexually oriented business” ads, while Modesto would reject an adult store ad for its buses, said Fred Cavanah, Modesto transit manager.

William Ball, owner of Wild Willy’s, said he takes exception to Lane calling the store a “sex shop.” He said his store is a clean, quiet place that has no video booths, doesn’t rent videos, caters to couples, and closes at 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

The store has a large front room that has lingerie, adult magazines, condoms and merchandise found at many stores, and a smaller room off to the side containing its more explicit fare, such as adult DVDs and sex toys.

“We’re really just a retail store,” Ball said. “I pay taxes. I’m just a regular business.” He pays $425 a month for his bus ad, and advertises on radio.

Lane, who lost in his bid for City Council last year, said he’s not complaining about the Wild Willy’s bus ad to create a campaign issue in another run for City Council.

“It’s not a political thing. I’ve got a 13-year-old daughter,” Lane said. “It’s not moral outrage,” he said, but “an opportunity to have a dialogue about appropriateness.”

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