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O.C. Town's War on "Blight" of Free Speech

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A young man willing to start at the bottom.

Whether it's an essential part of entrepreneurship, a beloved piece of the urban mosaic, vital free speech, or just proof of how much humiliation a person will endure for an hourly rate, paying people to carry advertising signs has been part of the free world's rich pageant for more than a century.

So what kind of anti-American jerks would object? Why, the members of a city planning commission, of course.

The indispensable OC Weekly columnist Gustavo Arellano takes a look at how the Santa Ana planning commission is defying First Amendment precedent, economic reality and general civic wonderfulness by making sure no businesses (other than the ones favored by politicians) are allowed to employ kids who carry, hold or even (can democracy survive?) twirl signs advertising their services: 

I wrote an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times three years ago about SanTana's plans back then to criminally prosecute those businesses that pay people to wave signs directing the public to them. Those plans went nowhere, namely because courts across the land have deemed such living ads as free speech.

Wearing a sandwich board makes you look cool.

Following the law has never mattered to SanTana city officials, so they are now trying to implement their will by legislating on a new-restaurant by new-restaurant case, as is the case with a new Subway proposed for the most-Mexican ciudad in America

This afternoon, the SanTana Planning Commission will decide whether to issue a conditional use permit for a Subway proposed near the intersection of First Street and Harbor Boulevard. City staff has recommended that the commission approve the permit "as conditioned," according to today's agenda report.

The condition? That the proposed Subway not employ any human signs.

In a report prepared for the hearing, SanTana Principal Planner Vince Fregoso goes on a nearly one-page rant against said signs, specifically calling out Subway as a principal violator of this supposed "visual blight." "While this type of signage is in no way employed only by Subway sandwich shops, it has become a standard practice of some Subway franchises to use 'human signs,'" Fregoso wrote. "Therefore, a condition of approval has been added which prohibits the use of such signs."

Don't we all?

Whole story.

It's striking how unpopular free speech is when somebody is paying for it. In Los Angeles, there has been a billboard war on for as long as anybody can remember, but even federal judges can't seem to entertain the idea that this is a First Amdendment issue.

As Gustavo's story makes clear, these ad bans are not even uniform. Santa Ana still lets sign-wavers advertise a restaurant that the mayor likes. In L.A., connected players like Philip Anschutz and AEG get waivers on the billboard ban all the time. After winning new restrictions, the anti-billboard faction is out for new restrictions: a rampage against digital signage, against big signs, and against little signs. The new front in this war: whether Yogi Bear ads are corrupting the morals of minors.

Although the argument is usually an aesthetic one (you may be aware of the constitutional right not to have your view ruined by an ad for Preparation H), there are cracks in this baptist/bootlegger alliance. In 2001, the former city attorney cut a deal with outdoor advertisers for free campaign advertising, then exempted his supporters from the city's ban. The current city attorney has banned billboards, but you can still see them all over town.

NEXT: Let's Hope Jon Stewart's Audience Really Is Full of Stoners—and Not the Lazy Kind

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  1. Not to be outdone, New York Lawmakers tackle the problem of free speech in dealing with a time-honored NYC tradition.

  2. For those who don’t know, that penis guy is from a BBC documentary called “My Penis and I.”

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0481588/

    http://vimeo.com/4619491

    1. I thought he was sentenced by a judge for chatting with minors on the internet.

      If you outlaw sandwich boards, only outlaws will wear state-mandated sandwich boards.

  3. Whether it’s an essential part of entrepreneurship, a beloved piece of the urban mosaic, vital free speech, or just proof of how much humiliation a person will endure for an hourly rate

    I’m pretty sure it’s the last one.

    1. I work at a university, and a student who is friends with a sign flipper said he made $15 an hour.

      1. Including flips? I mean tips?

  4. The debate over the proposal to put ads for the Yogi Bear movie in L.A. city parks was about the propriety of commercial advertising in those public spaces, not about “corrupting the morals of minors.”

    1. Holy cow, Dennis! Your actual reason is even stupider than the joke I made.

    2. What a hypocrite. “Free speech for me but not for thee” won’t win you any friends other than fascists.

  5. Yet another argument for the privatization of road and sidewalks.

  6. Gustavo is by far the only reason to read the OC Weekly. Man, has that thing gone downhill!

  7. It’s striking how unpopular free speech is when somebody is paying for it. In Los Angeles, there has been a billboard war on for as long as anybody can remember, but even federal judges can’t seem to entertain the idea that this is a First Amdendment issue.

    This helps to explain why Hollywood is failing. An industry needs a culture that allows new entrants to survive in a city. A similar situation helps explain why Wall Street is crumbling. Food vendors are illegal in parts of the finance district. I might start singing for spare change in that area just to stand up for commercial transactions.

  8. These people never think outside the box. This is too easy. Everyone who wants to hire a sign-walker, does, but they hire a homeless person to advertise some other business that also wants a sign-walker, and they tell them they are from some third party. Everyone pays for, and gets, however many sign-walkers they’re willing to pay for. Give them regular showers, clean clothes from Salvation Army, $50 and a hot meal a day. Bus them in from neighboring towns, if you have to.

    Keep doing this until they are everywhere. Once the planning commission finally gets fed up and decides to go after the business on the sign, regardless of who’s actually paying for it, you start turning out signs advertising the great and wonderful work of…

    The planning commission. Total sandwich-board chaos. Collapse the system from the inside.

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