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Caltrans to Allow All Freeway Banners

Policy: State agency reverses ban and says flags and signs are OK, as long as they are secure.

September 19, 2002|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reversing a previous order, the California Department of Transportation has decided to allow all banners, signs and flags--regardless of the message--to be flown on bridges and highway overpasses.

Caltrans' policy on freeway displays came under scrutiny when two Santa Cruz women sued the state agency last year, charging that it routinely removed banners with unpopular messages while allowing flags to fly on overpasses and bridges.

In January, a federal judge presiding over the lawsuit ordered Caltrans to adopt consistent guidelines for flags and banners on freeway property. Immediately after the ruling, Caltrans officials said they would remove all banners and flags, including the hundreds of American flags hung after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But in court papers filed this month, Caltrans officials said every district director in the state has since been instructed to allow all flags, banners and signs installed by the public to be displayed, so long as they do not pose a safety risk.

Several free-speech advocates, including the two Santa Cruz women who filed the lawsuit, plan to test Caltrans' new edict today by hanging banners on freeway overpasses in Santa Cruz and San Francisco.

Amy Courtney, one of the two plaintiffs, called the agency's new stand on freeway displays a victory for free speech.

"This is what we wanted from the start," Courtney said in an interview from her Santa Cruz home. "One year later and countless tax dollars later, it is interesting that they have finally chosen to abide by the Constitution."

Caltrans spokesman Dennis Trujillo said the state agency reconsidered its original response to the judge's orders and decided to allow all securely fastened signs and banners on bridges and overpasses so that the American flags can continue to fly on state freeways.

He insisted, however, that Caltrans has not changed its long-standing policy of allowing only securely fastened flags on freeway property.

Instead, Trujillo said, Caltrans is simply abiding by the ruling, which Caltrans hopes to overturn on appeal.

"This is not a shift in policy," he said. "It is our response to a court order."

The lawsuit was filed after Courtney and her friend Cassandra Brown hung a banner on a freeway overpass in the Northern California community of Scotts Valley in November.

The overpass was already adorned with a large American flag and a banner that read, "SC{heart}NY" (Santa Cruz loves New York). The women's 7-by-5-foot banner questioned the American bombing mission in Afghanistan with the message: "At What Cost?"

The women had planned on adding another banner that read, "Are You Buying This War?" But before they could install the second banner, the first banner was removed by a Scotts Valley police officer, who left the flag and the "SC{heart}NY" sign in place.

Courtney said she and Brown hung other freeway signs questioning America's foreign policy following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but those were removed as well.

In challenging the removal of the signs, the women learned that Caltrans prohibited all banners from overpasses and bridges but allowed securely fastened flags. Courtney and Brown sued, arguing that the policy violated the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech.

In January, U.S. District Judge Ronald M. Whyte issued a preliminary injunction, ruling that Caltrans cannot allow the public to hang flags along the freeways while barring other signs. Whyte ordered Caltrans to either remove all banners, signs and flags or draft a policy allowing all such displays, regardless of content.

In response, Caltrans officials announced in January that the agency would remove all banners and flags.

But attorneys for the two women complained that Caltrans officials had failed to submit to the judge a clear policy on the matter. In August, Whyte ordered Caltrans to submit a written clarification.

"During the deposition, we have gotten wildly different stories from Caltrans," said Nathan Benjamin, an attorney for the women.

Responding to the order, Caltrans Deputy District Director Steve Price submitted a declaration on Sept. 5 stating that all Caltrans district directors have been instructed "to comply with the injunction by allowing banners and signs posted by private parties to be displayed on highway overpasses so long as they do not pose a safety risk."

The declaration says American flags must be treated like all other banners.

Price said Caltrans workers will decide on a case-by-case basis which banners, signs and flags must be removed because they are in danger of coming loose and falling on passing motorists.

After the judge's ruling in January, Courtney said she and Brown received many angry phone calls and letters from people who accused them of being unpatriotic. But she said the two women have also gained many supporters, who praise them as champions of the 1st Amendment.

Courtney describes herself and Brown simply as "concerned citizens."

"I think we are speaking for a lot of people who are afraid to speak up during a pretty repressive time," she said.

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