City may legalize fliering in some areas
Jenny Brown
September 1997

You wouldn't guess it from looking at them, but fliering utility poles is illegal in Gainesville, with a penalty of up to $500 fine and 60 days in jail for violators. Over 2,700 people signed a petition last year asking that the City Commission repeal this longstanding ordinance, but the City voted down a motion to repeal the ordinance 3-1 and referred the matter to the City Manager, then to Public Works.

On Monday, September 8, after 6 p.m., at the City Commission meeting (in the auditorium on the first floor of City Hall) the Commission will consider recommendations from its Public Works Committee to loosen up the law. In an August 19 meeting they indicated that they would recommend that the ordinance be suspended in the downtown and university areas where fliering is prevalent, build kiosks on the downtown plaza, and make fliering outside that "context area" a civil penalty (i.e. a fine). Every two weeks, on a regular schedule, all flyers would be removed from poles. Proponents of fliering are still asking for total repeal of the ordinance.

Even the Public Works recommendation will not be adopted, however, if there is not widespread vocal public support for fliering rights. It is competing with a suggestion by the City Manager that $35,000 be spent to clear all the poles and launch a public campaign to tell people it's illegal to flier. After the education period a police crackdown would ensue, wherein all people caught fliering would be punished.

The Public Works committee's recommendation, which has not been finalized at this writing, would discriminate against people fliering in parts of town other than the "context area." In particular, Gainesville's Black community, which already experiences selective enforcement from the police, would face more restrictions than the largely student community which uses the poles on University and 13th St.

People were regularly fined and even arrested for posting fliers until summer of 1996 when three of the people arrested under this code stood on their free speech rights and refused to be intimidated by the police and courts.

David Grantham, Howard Rosenfeld, and Mike Geison were arrested in separate incidents for placing informational fliers on poles within blocks of University Ave and 13th Street. Grantham and Geison were handcuffed and placed in police cars. Rosenfeld was cited and told to show up in court.

Generally, people arrested under this ordinance plead guilty. These three refused to plead guilty, saying that the ordinance was a violation of their rights to free speech, and was being selectively enforced against them. This point was highlighted when the City gave permission to Coca Cola to post fliers on the poles all along University Ave. to advertise the Coca Cola-sponsored Olympic torch relay.

Community political organizations, musicians and artists, who are particularly at risk for police intimidation, rallied and marched down University Avenue posting fliers as a group on August 8, 1996. Their fliers read "YOUR IDEA HERE (could get you arrested)"; "YARD SALE TODAY ($500 fine tomorrow)" and "POST NO BILLS (unless you're a major corporation.)" The march was organized by the Civic Media Center, and joined by representatives of Campus NOW, the Hardback Cafe, musicians and others who had been arrested under the law. They circulated a petition, gathering 2,700 signatures of Gainesvillians calling for repeal of the ordinance 17-2 which makes illegal "affixing signs or advertising matter to and upon poles erected in the streets of the City ..."

At a rally in front of the courthouse, Campus NOW's then-president Eve Koenig said that these arrests 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. The city should be supporting the organizations which work to improve the lives of the people in our community, not tearing us down. ... We refuse to allow the Gainesville Police Department to shut us up and shut us down."

Faced with this resistance, State Attorney Rod Smith stated in a letter to the police chief August 26 that he would not prosecute the three or any other fliering cases. "... It is impractical and expensive to have police officers' time spent waiting to testify at a full-blown trial of such a trivial matter" Smith stated.

Since then, according to the City Manager, the ordinance has not been enforced. This brief period of relative freedom may end, however, if the City decides to take the route recommended by the City Manager.

Bill Stephenson, a Civic Media Center volunteer and an organizer in the Gainesville Freedom School, led the initial assault on the ordinance. "We think the ordinance discriminates against small business, community groups and individuals who can't afford more expensive methods of spreading information."

"It's ugly"
At the City Commission meetings, fliering opponents bemoan the ugliness of the fliers and even charge that they're an environmental hazard. Developer Linda McGurn sounded as though her interior decorating plans had gone awry on July 28 when she stated: "We're spending a lot of money to put up new poles that are more attractive on the streets, that aren't so much clutter, we're going through all these design studies. We've spent over a million dollars just in the downtown changing out sidewalks for brick... The fliers are ugly."

Stephenson disagrees. "This is a class issue masquerading as an aesthetic one," he told Moon Magazine last September. "People put up fliers because it's an efficient way to spread information, especially if you can't afford anything else. But some people ... don't consider it as 'nice' as a big expensive billboard or a TV commercial."

Rosenfeld, who was stopped by the police for putting up a flier for a DIY punk show at the Media Center, said "Fliering is an important sign of an active community. I know that I get much of my information about Gainesville's cultural, political, artistic and social activities from reading fliers on utility poles."

Unanimous on Kiosks
An early suggestion to keep cracking down on flierers but add information kiosks has been attacked from all sides. The sidewalks on University Avenue, where much of the fliering occurs, are congested to the point that information kiosks could cause further slowdowns and even accidents.

Arnall Downs, vice-chair of the College Park-University Heights CRA Advisory Board, opposed any ordinance change. "The advisory board wishes to have the ordinance enforced. They're afraid that the kiosks will result in basically the poles being littered and the kiosks providing an additional place for littering."

Other cities, such as Athens, Georgia and Madison, Wisconsin, have had success with message boards, but only in pedestrian-only areas or areas with very wide sidewalks. Suggestions for message boards built around the existing utility poles have been likewise unpopular--they would jut out at a point where bicyclists and pedestrians would be liable to hit them. These structures would have to withstand vandalism, particularly of the post-game variety. In Madison, parts of the kiosks are easily replaceable as there has been a problem with people setting them on fire.

People promoting local politics and events say that the number of kiosks suggested by the city (around 10) is nowhere near enough to provide space for all the events which are announced on fliers. "We already have numerous, inexpensive, well-constructed information kiosks all over town" a Civic Media Center volunteer stated last year. "They're called utility poles. It's up to the city and the police to prove there's a problem."

Double standard on litter
Litter is one of the main reasons cited by opponents of fliering. Joe Courter, manager of the Civic Media Center, which is at 1021 W. University Ave., says that the main problem keeping trash down on the sidewalks is that there are no trash cans. Courter maintains a trash can outside the Media Center, but nearly all of the trash is fast-food and convenience-store related, not fliers.

At the City meeting on July 28, Downs said that she personally was "Very concerned about the environmental effects of these fliers, in terms of how they look and excessive amounts of paper, hundreds of fliers... it's not healthy for the environment to allow these massive amounts of paper to float around."

Two days later, The Gainesville Sun chimed in, hysterically raising the spectre that "it would likewise be permissible to cover with (sic) walls of city hall, itself, with all manner of advertisements, to turn city police cars into rolling billboards and spray paint the names of bands appearing at local nightclubs, in Day-Glow colors, on the public sidewalks. Perhaps there is a difference in 'fliering' utility poles and resorting to the above advertising excesses. But if there is, it escapes us."

The Sun itself throws blue-wrappered promotional supplements on the front steps of Gainesville nonsubscribers every Tuesday, so it rings hollow when this mega-litterbug squawks that "a group of self-styled activists ... somehow have a First Amendment right to deface public property, litter the sidewalks and generally help make Gainesville's main byways as ugly as they please." (July 31, 1997)

"The issue at hand is not about litter," Bill Stephenson said on July 28. "We favor keeping the city clean. It is not about old, outdated fliers. We favor clearing them off periodically. It is not about kiosks or message boards. If the city wants to provide more space for the low-cost spread of information, we support that too.

"The issue is whether people should be cited or arrested for doing something that harms no one and actively benefits many. ... Keeping the city beautiful does not require fining us and throwing us in jail. It does not require the expense of prosecuting the arrests that will surely follow [the City Manager's recommended] policy. Nor do we think the "fliering problem" requires 11 months of study and $35,000 of taxpayer money to find a solution. We don't think most citizens of Gainesville even believe such a problem exists. Again we ask the City Commission to simply repeal the current ordinance. Free speech for all of us is more important than the sensibilities of a few developers and bureaucrats who think that people who can't afford a billboard belong in jail."

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