Religious messages on personal or commercial property are protected speech, and I would never dream of touching or damaging someone’s car, church sign, or a paid advertisement or billboard. Such is not the case with messages on public property–especially when those messages are anonymous–where the perpetrator cannot be traced or held accountable. It’s clear that this kind of message is not even an advertisement for a particular church. Instead, the signs are an attempt to generically proselytize and induce guilt in members of other faiths or those, like myself, with no faith at all. I consider the signs the moral equivalent of a big fat middle finger from the fundies–a public tantrum. So I ripped down six of them today in 2 different locations in the San Fernando Valley. Middle finger right back atcha, freakin’ fanatics!
Just to be clear, if you choose to tear down such signs, the law is on your side. It does not infringe on someone else’s first amendment rights. (Just be sure to recycle and not leave them on the ground). I checked to be sure, and found that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984 upheld Los Angeles’ municipal code ban on political advertising on utility poles. The 6-3 decision written by Justice Stevens reads in part:
MEMBERS OF THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES v. TAXPAYERS FOR VINCENT
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
466 U.S. 789
May 15, 1984, Decided
JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Section 28.04 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code prohibits the posting of signs on public property. The question presented is whether that prohibition abridges appellees’ freedom of speech within the meaning of the First Amendment.
In March 1979, Roland Vincent was a candidate for election to the Los Angeles City Council. A group of his supporters known as Taxpayers for Vincent (Taxpayers) entered into a contract with a political sign service company known as Candidates’ Outdoor Graphics Service (COGS) to fabricate and post signs with Vincent’s name on them. COGS produced 15- by 44-inch cardboard signs and attached them to utility poles at various locations by draping them over crosswires which support the poles and stapling the cardboard together at the bottom. The signs’ message was: “Roland Vincent — City Council.”
Acting under the authority of § 28.04 of the Municipal Code, employees of the city’s Bureau of Street Maintenance routinely removed all posters attached to utility poles and similar objects covered by the ordinance, including the COGS signs. The weekly sign removal report covering the period March 1-March 7, 1979, indicated that among the 1,207 signs removed from public property during that week, 48 were identified as “Roland Vincent” signs. Most of the other signs identified in that report were apparently commercial in character.
It is well settled that the state may legitimately exercise its police powers to advance esthetic values. In this case, taxpayers and COGS do not dispute that it is within the constitutional power of the City to attempt to improve its appearance, or that this interest is basically unrelated to the suppression of ideas. Therefore the critical inquiries are whether that interest is sufficiently substantial to justify the effect of the ordinance on appellees’ expression, and whether that effect is no greater than necessary to accomplish the City’s purpose….
The problem addressed by this ordinance — the visual assault on the citizens of Los Angeles presented by an accumulation of signs posted on public property — constitutes a significant substantive evil within the City’s power to prohibit. “[The] city’s interest in attempting to preserve [or improve] the quality of urban life is one that must be accorded high respect.”
We turn to the question whether the scope of the restriction on appellees’ expressive activity is substantially broader than necessary to protect the City’s interest in eliminating visual clutter. The incidental restriction on expression which results from the City’s attempt to accomplish such a purpose is considered justified as a reasonable regulation of the time, place, or manner of expression if it is narrowly tailored to serve that interest. It is not speculative to recognize that billboards by their very nature, wherever located and however constructed, can be perceived as an ‘esthetic harm.’ The same is true of posted signs.
Appellees suggest that the public property covered by the ordinance either is itself a “public forum” for First Amendment purposes, or at least should be treated in the same respect as the “public forum” in which the property is located. “Traditional public forum property occupies a special position in terms of First Amendment protection,” and appellees maintain that their sign-posting activities are entitled to this protection.
Appellees’ reliance on the public forum doctrine is misplaced. They fail to demonstrate the existence of a traditional right of access respecting such items as utility poles for purposes of their communication comparable to that recognized for public streets and parks, and it is clear that “the First Amendment does not guarantee access to government property simply because it is owned or controlled by the government.” Rather, the “existence of a right of access to public property and the standard by which limitations upon such a right must be evaluated differ depending on the character of the property at issue.”
Lampposts can of course be used as signposts, but the mere fact that government property can be used as a vehicle for communication does not mean that the Constitution requires such uses to be permitted. Public property which is not by tradition or designation a forum for public communication may be reserved by the State “for its intended purposes, communicative or otherwise, as long as the regulation on speech is reasonable and not an effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker’s view.” Given our analysis of the legitimate interest served by the ordinance, its viewpoint neutrality, and the availability of alternative channels of communication, the ordinance is certainly constitutional as applied to appellees under this standard….
Finally, Taxpayers and COGS argue that Los Angeles could have written an ordinance that would have had a less severe effect on expressive activity such as theirs, by permitting the posting of any kind of sign at any time on some types of public property, or by making a variety of other more specific exceptions to the ordinance: for signs carrying certain types of messages (such as political campaign signs), for signs posted during specific time periods (perhaps during political campaigns), for particular locations (perhaps for areas already cluttered by an excessive number of signs on adjacent private property), or for signs meeting design specifications (such as size or color). Plausible public policy arguments might well be made in support of any such exception, but it by no means follows that it is therefore constitutionally mandated, nor is it clear that some of the suggested exceptions would even be constitutionally permissible…..
So I took great personal pleasure implementing the will of the high court today. Would I go out of my way to do this? No. But being in the area and driving right by, I couldn’t let the messages stand. They are illegal, discriminatory, judgmental, and ultimately offensive to any definition of pluralism. By their presence in the public square, they are judged by broad community standards, meaning by people of all faiths or none. A sign reading “Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life” assumes the worst in people, that we are all somehow deficient and need Jesus to come and rescue us from something–most likely ourselves. And by whom? Since Jesus is dead, if he ever existed at all, he’s not going to ‘save us.’ So it’s down to these goons. Does anyone think the losers who put up the signs have anything of value to offer humanity?
No one, not even middle-of-the-road churchgoers, likes to be approached by these Christofascist morons. I think most people talk to them at shopping malls and such for one of three reasons: 1) They are fundies themselves, 2) for fun or to argue with them in public, or 3) because they feel sorry for them. For me personally, I don’t like to get anywhere near them, since I don’t feel sorry for them and it’s pointless to argue with them. I got that out of my system in college and now I’d rather just write about it. But passing 4 such signs in the space of one block is pretty much the same–a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
Not content with following municipal law, nor to practice their religion quietly, these folks feel the compulsion to make sure the rest of us take notice. If they could, they would surely throw out the Constitution, passing laws to make it mandatory to attend church, arresting people for fornication, banning science education in schools, etc. People who are crazy enough to go to a copy shop, spend money to run off a bunch of these signs, glue them to cardboard and spend Saturday morning driving around with a staple gun are people who, if they got in power, would become the American Taliban.
Concert promoters, politicians, and other advertisers already know better than to do this. The signs will be quickly removed by the graffiti teams, and the advertiser will be sent a citation and a bill. These ‘clever’ Jesus heads of course left no address or phone number (since their reward is in heaven in any case, yeah, send the citation and bill to heaven also, right)–not really a problem since their goal isn’t to convey a commercial message, but rather to feel smug by inducing guilt and fear in others.
As for me, did I accomplish anything great by tearing the signs down? Probably not. There’s plenty more where they came from, and the graffiti teams would have taken them down anyway by Monday. But it gave me personal satisfaction to stop the car for five minutes to make sure that these offensive and illegal signs would not be up in my area for the duration of the weekend. It’s my community service for the day–the least I could do.
Again, please don’t forget to recycle!