Censorship

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In most cities, the easiest way to promote a concert, locate a lost dog, sublet a room, or announce a demonstration is to run off a few hundred fliers and post them around town. In Seattle, however, this will earn you a $250 fine: In 1994, the city prohibited attaching posters to any "traffic control device, utility pole, lamp post, City-owned structure, or City-owned tree or shrubbery in any public place." Proponents argued that posters were ugly, that they might somehow hurt utility workers, and that public property should not be used for "free advertising." Seattle allowed only one exception to the ordinance: The city itself could post on all the utility poles it wanted to, and to hell with any injury-prone workers who might consequently get in harm's way.

Now a new group, Free Speech Seattle, wants to roll back the ban. "It's hurt the music scene and music culture in Seattle drastically," says Tim Crowley, who helped launch the organization last year. The law has also restricted political speech, he argues: When media outlets ignored the monthly marches against the drug war that he was helping to organize, he found that he was left without an easy way to get the word out about coming demonstrations. "The law hurts unpopular causes," he concludes.

Free Speech Seattle is sponsoring Initiative 46, which would repeal the restriction on using utility poles and lamp posts, while leaving the law's other provisions in place. If 19,000 people sign the group's petition, the initiative will go before the city council; if the council rejects it, it will appear on the next public ballot.

The city, meanwhile, has come up with a different plan. Last summer it created a task force to study the notion of spending some unspecified amount of money to build several hundred "community kiosks" around town.

Free Speech Seattle doesn't object to kiosks–indeed, two of its members sit on the city's task force–but it suspects that official post-it sites would be beside the point. "If I want to have a garage sale in my neighborhood, it won't do me much good to put a flier on a community kiosk 20 blocks away," observes Crowley. "This city already has 25,000 kiosks. They're called utility poles."