State drops fliering charges against 3; 1700 sign petition to repeal ordinance
Jenny Brown. Bill Stephenson and Howard Rosenfeld contributed to this report.
The State Attorney's office dropped charges August 26 against three activists charged with putting up informational fliers on utility poles on University Avenue. All three pled not guilty to the charges, maintaining that the city ordinance outlawing fliering is selectively enforced and a violation of citizens free speech rights.
Last November, hemp legalization advocate Michael Geison was arrested for wheatpasting a 3X5 inch flier on a pole at University and 13th Street. In May, Civic Media Center volunteers David Grantham and Howard Rosenfeld were stopped in separate incidents for taping fliers on poles. Rosenfeld was cited and told to appear in court; Grantham, who placed a poetry flier on a pole, was charged, cuffed and stuck in a squad car because he couldn't produce ID. The possible penalties for the "crime" of fliering include a fine of up to $500 and 60 days in jail. Police have zapped many others with this ordinance, such as 97X radio station D.J. Mo Rodriguez on February 19 and an assortment of band members and music venue employees promoting music events.
But most people ignore the law and post fliers about everything from political protests to band parties to lost pets and everything in between. There are so many fliers up on poles at any given time that "I didn't know it was illegal" said Grantham shortly after his arrest.
The willingness of Geison, Grantham and Rosenfeld to stand up for their rights inspired others to get work to abolish the City's anti-fliering ordinance (statute 17-2) which states: "It shall be unlawful for any person to affix signs or advertising matter to and upon poles erected in the streets of the city and used by any person for either telegraph, telephone, electric light or power purposes." Civic Media Center members and volunteers, outraged at seeing coworkers harassed and threatened with fines of up to $500 and 60-day jail terms for what they regard as a public service, organized to protest.
On August 8, coinciding with Rosenfeld and Grantham's second court appearance, about 20 people marched down University Avenue to protest the arrests and the ordinance. But it was a march with a twist: they fliered as they went. According to Bill Stephenson, one of the march organizers, "It was a simple idea. Invite our fliering friends out to do what we normally do, but do it together, in the middle of the day, right down University Avenue, after announcing our intentions to the public and press; then to make some statements at the courthouse explaining why arresting people for fliering is wrong, and why the city ordinance that makes fliering on utility and telephone poles unlawful should be taken off the books."
They encouraged curious passers-by to sign a petition asking for the ordinance to be repealed. "And best of all we got the word out about our opposition to the ordinance in the most appropriate way: by fliering utility poles, with signs to alert Gainesville residents to their first amendment rights, to the dangers of fliering in Gainesville and to the city's hypocrisy in its selective enforcement of the ordinance." One set of fliers read: "YARD SALE TODAY($500 fine tomorrow)", "YOUR IDEA HERE (could get you arrested)" and "POST NO BILLS (unless you're a major corporation)". According to Stephenson, they also fliered for upcoming Civic Media Center events, and removed and disposed of outdated fliers while putting the new ones up, "something everyone who fliers should do." Protestors carried signs saying "It's not 'free' speech when you have to pay for it," "Public Speech in Public Places" and "Free Speech not Sterile Streets."
"We started by drafting a petition that explained why we wanted the city commission to overturn this bad law" explained Stephenson. "1) because we think fliering, far from being a "crime" worthy of arrest and punishment, is actually a benefit to the community; 2) because we think the ordinance discriminates against small businesses, community groups and individuals who can't afford more expensive methods of spreading information; 3) because the ordinance is selectively enforced. The City itself approves of fliering, as long as it is done by a big organization like Coca-Cola (which, with the city manager's blessing, fliered innumerable downtown poles this summer to promote itself and the Coca-Cola Olympic torch relay); and, most importantly, 4) because we believe the ordinance violates the free speech rights of every Gainesville citizen."
Protesters collected 800 signatures by the time of the action, and have collected double that amount to date. "We intend to take our petition to campus with the return of the students, and to collect as many more signatures as we can before presenting our demand to the City Commission." They expect to go before the commission at its Monday, September 9 meeting.
At the press conference after the "flier-in" several community members forcefully declared their opposition to the anti-fliering ordinance. Grantham and Rosenfeld, who were set to go to court an hour later, spoke about their experiences with the police, as did Rodriguez.
Rosenfeld outlined his reasons for believing fliering should be legal. "Fliering is an important sign of an active community," he said. "I know that I get much of my information about Gainesville's cultural, political, artistic and social activities from reading fliers on utility poles... and other people have been telling us the same thing."
Alan Bushnell, proprietor of the Hardback Cafe, explained the crackdown on fliering as an example of the city's lack of regard for non-rich individuals and small-budget businesses and community groups. Eve Koenig, president of UF/SFCC Campus NOW strongly opposed the anti-fliering ordinance as another opportunity for police harassment of political organizations. "The city should be supporting the organizations which work to improve the lives of the people in our community, not tearing us down," she said. "We refuse to allow the Gainesville Police Department to shut us up and shut us down."
Although the demonstration put up hundreds of fliers, no-one was arrested. "As we expected, GPD turned its head to our blatant violation of the law. Though we don't have the clout of Coke and we couldn't use the cover of the Olympics to get an official exemption for our information blitz, we must have qualified for an informal one. Perhaps city hall realizes that arresting people for fliering isn't really a very popular stance and that press coverage of such arrests would be bad news for city officials and GPD." Stephenson said.
Stephenson's hunch may turn out to be right. In a letter from State Attorney Rod Smith to GPD Chief Tony Jones, telling Jones he has dropped the charges, Smith states: "It would be unwise to allow these minor offenses to create a forum for those wishing to portray this office as excessively selective in its prosecutorial decisions." (See full text of letter in box below.)
In response to the demonstration, and the charge that the City allows certain fliering, WUFT-FM radio coverage quoted Mayor-Commissioner Ed Jennings as saying that the City had given an explicit exemption from the anti-fliering law to Coca-Cola. On TV-20, City Manager Wayne Bowers lamely explained that the Olympic torch posters exempted in July "Were more or less a parade route designation sign and not true advertising signs." Surely the City knows it's on shaky constititional ground when it sets itself up to approve the content of some fliers and arrests people for posting others.
Some city officials and even members of the alternative press have floated the idea that the ordinance could stand if the City would provide "information kiosks" for organizations and individuals to post fliers on, citing a problem with trash. One problem with this is that kiosks would cause further congestion on the sidewalk, and there would never be enough of them, in enough different places, for people to use them as effectively as they now use the poles. It is questionable whether a flier on a kiosk has less chance of falling off than one on a uility pole.
"Most of the trash on University Avenue is food wrappers and cups" reports Joe Courter, director of the Civic Media Center. "We even put out our own trash can, which was 2/3 full after 5 days. If the City is concerned about trash, they should provide trash cans."
"We already have numerous, inexpensive, well-constructed information kiosks all over town" one CMC volunteer stated. "They're called utility poles." Nearly everyone agrees that the burden is on the City to show what the problem is..
If you want to help--by signing or distributing the petition, giving activists information (particularly about other citations, arrests or trials for fliering), making suggestions, or doing some other work toward overturning the ordinance, call the CMC at 373-0010 or Bill Stephenson at 338-1729. Petitions are available at the CMC and at a number of local businesses.
Two anonymous flierers commit civil disobedience (break an unjust law) by posting a flier during a march down University Avenue demonstrating opposition to the City's anti-flyering ordinance, August 8. The flyer states: "YARD SALE TODAY ($500 fine tomorrow.) Flyering is not a crime!" The protest was organized by the Civic Media Center.
UF/SFCC National Organization for Women (NOW) president Eve Koenig objects to the ordinance prohibiting fliering at a demonstration on August 8. These prosecutions are "a direct threat to Campus NOW and other community political organizations because fliering is our chief means of publicity. ... This ordinance and the hypocritical enforcement of it will weaken our group by making it harder to reach interested women ... We demand repeal of the City's unfair, unnecessary anti-fliering ordinance" Koenig said.
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