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Ban on Banners a Good Sign

September 24, 2002

In a boneheaded move, the California Department of Transportation this month announced that, to comply with a federal judge's ruling, it had no choice but to turn the state's 12,000 bridges and freeway overpasses into so many concrete soapboxes, billboards and personal message boards.

Caltrans got itself into this mess last fall when it let stand a banner supporting New York terror victims. A 1953 state law permits residents to affix the American flag and California's state flag to freeway bridges--but nothing else--as long as flags are securely fastened and don't endanger motorists. So when someone hung the 9/11 banner on an overpass in the Northern California community of Scotts Valley, Caltrans workers should have untied it. Understandably, they didn't.

Not long after that, two Santa Cruz women hung their own poster questioning America's bombing of Afghanistan from the same overpass. A police officer promptly removed it but let the 9/11 sympathy sign stand.

Naturally, court was the next stop. There the two women argued, quite sensibly, that when flags and some political signs stay up while workers rip others down, the state is infringing Californians' free speech rights. The trial judge agreed and ordered Caltrans to come up with a consistent policy allowing all flags and banners or nothing at all. Since state law already allowed flags, agency officials decided they had no choice but to permit pretty much everything else that wasn't obscene or derogatory, so long as it wasn't in danger of falling onto the whizzing cars below.

Imagine the tsunami of signs poised to crash upon motorists: "Earn $$$ at home," "Sexy Women Waiting to Talk to You at 1-800 ... " or "Lauren, Will You Marry Me?"

Overnight, the 6,000 men and women at Caltrans responsible for highway maintenance became the decency brigade--not to mention referees between different individuals and interest groups intent on getting prominent display for their message or cause.

The result was predictably chaotic. In one of several reported incidents last weekend, advocates for medical marijuana scaled a 100-foot-high section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and hung their banner, which someone else quickly removed. It was pure luck that no one plummeted onto the roadway--just the sort of distraction a driver who's putting on makeup with a mouth full of fast food and fingers on the cell phone and radio dial needs.

By Monday, someone at the agency had come to his or her senses. They came up with a new interim policy: no flags, no banners.

Caltrans has an October date before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. It wants to go back to the flag-only rule. But we hope the court recognizes that this is not a 1st Amendment issue and that there's no good reason to allow California's freeways and bridges to be cluttered with ads, political statements or even the Stars and Stripes.

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