Civil Liberties

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


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.