GREENSBORO — The activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is threatening to sue the city over the Greensboro Transit Agency's refusal to display the group's ads on local buses.

The group claims GTA rejected its "Your Fun Hurts Animals" ad because the message is critical of the UniverSoul Circus that is scheduled to perform at the Greensboro Coliseum later this month. The interactive show combines circus art, theater and music.

"An event in which sensitive wild animals are forced to perform confusing tricks under threat of punishment is a source of shame," PETA Foundation Deputy General Counsel Jared Goodman said in a statement Thursday.

Goodman said his group is giving GTA "an opportunity to reverse its unconstitutional decision and is calling on people to stick up for animals by staying away from UniverSoul Circus."

GTA's rejection violated "freedom of speech" requirements established both by the U.S. Constitution and the N.C. Bill of Rights, Goodman said.

Goodman sent a four-page letter to City Attorney Charles Watts on Thursday complaining that GTA had rejected the group's ad language because "it sheds a negative light on a community event that the city is hosting."

He told Watts the transit system's rejection "was based on an unconstitutional desire to restrict speech that reflects a particular viewpoint on the use of animals in circuses."

Goodman said the group hoped to display the ad for four weeks starting as soon as possible. The circus is scheduled to perform in the coliseum's parking lot from Aug. 13 through Aug. 18, before moving on to its next venue at a Charlotte mall.

An illustration of the proposed ad accompanying Goodman's letter shows a wide-mouthed clown with an elephant emerging from the performer's throat.

"Your fun hurts animals," the ad claims. "UniverSoul Circus exploits animals instead of focusing on its talented human acts. Don't go."

Goodman said in a telephone interview Friday morning that the proposed Greensboro ad actually would show a zebra emerging from the clown's mouth because UniverSoul no longer uses elephants and tigers in its performances, a decision that he characterized as a step in the right direction.

UniverSoul Circus responded to a News & Record request for comment Friday by emailing its "animal rights policy," which stands in stark contrast to PETA's assertions.

UniverSoul said its policy stems from the belief "that all animals are entitled to humane treatment and should never be mistreated or abused in any way."

"All of our animal vendors are subject to regulation by federal, state, and local animal welfare authorities," the circus said. "We care about the well-being of each of the animals that travels with and performs in our shows, and we regard all of them as valued members of our performing cast delivering high quality, family friendly entertainment that brings joy, happiness and laughter to audiences around the world."

PETA attorney Goodman said the group has displayed ads similar to that rejected by GTA on buses in numerous cities across the nation. Some officials in those communities initially raised objections like those voiced by GTA, but most quickly reversed course when confronted with the likelihood of a lawsuit, Goodman said.

Goodman added that GTA rejected the activist group's proposed ad through a third-party vendor before PETA could get a detailed cost estimate. But he said the group had expected to pay about $2,000 to display the ad on the GTA fleet.

City Attorney Watts' office staff said Friday that he was out of town at a conference. Spokesman Jake Keys said that Watts was the appropriate person to respond for city government and that his reaction would be forthcoming as soon as possible.

The News & Record also reached out to GTA but did not receive a response. 

In his letter Thursday, Goodman urged Watts to act promptly to reverse GTA's rejection because the group has limited time to display its advertising message before the circus arrives.

Otherwise, "we are prepared to proceed with filing a lawsuit in federal court in North Carolina on PETA's behalf seeking an injunction, declaratory relief, costs and attorney's fees," Goodman said.

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Contact Taft Wireback at 336-373-7100 and follow @TaftWirebackNR on Twitter.

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