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JTA Stepping into Sign Ordinance/1st Amendment Buzzsaw

I wonder if Mike Miller, JTA spokesperson, has a death wish or is just into masochism. He, and JTA, are back – attempting to get City Council to pass exemptions from the sign ordinance for ads in transit shelters – a continuation of an ongoing JTA campaign covering at least 4 years and now 2 separate legislative efforts. 

Let’s go back in time to 2005 and the beginning of JTA’s first campaign push for bus shelter ads – a controversial proposal from the very beginning of its introduction by Councilman Art Shad.  JTA’s pitch went something like this: Establish public-private partnerships wherein private companies would build bus shelters and maintain them and their company ad would be placed on or in the bus shelter in return – just as long as it didn’t advertise certain subject matters. 

Proponents of the legislation argued that allowing bus shelter ads and these public-private partnerships would result in more bus shelters being built and more people riding the bus.  Interestingly, the Times Union happily jumped in and ran numerous editorials supporting Shad’s proposed legislation.  As it turned out, the Times Union’s parent company, Morris Communications, also happened to own (and still does to this day) Fairway Outdoor Advertising – an outdoor advertising/billboard company – jading the public’s view of the newspaper’s objectivity in  its calls for passage of the legislation. 

Opponents of the legislation argued that bus shelter ads where nothing more than billboards disguised as a bus shelter.    Former councilwoman Suzanne Jenkins argued that allowing ads on bus shelters would undermine sign regulations aimed at at fighting “visual pollution” and halting the spread of signs across Jacksonville.  (The sign ordinance had been promoted and passed as a citizen initiative in 1987 in response to a 1985 Jacksonville Community Council, Inc. study on visual pollution recommending the elimination of bus bench advertising throughout the City.) 

In addition, opponents of the proposed legislation clearly pointed out to City Council that the City couldn’t restrict the subject of any bus shelter ads due to constitutional free speech concerns.  Joining in along the way to support former Councilwoman Jenkins were some of the architects of the City’s sign ordinance and its strongest supporters: names still recognizable as major players today – Bill Brinton and Bill Scheu – along with two current City Council members – John Crescimbeni and Denise Lee. 

True to expectations, Shad’s proposal hit several snags.  Just as it was to be voted on in February 2006, Shad pulled the bill from the City Council agenda after a meeting with opponents.  Although things appeared to be smoothed over with opponents after that, the bill’s troubles were definitely not over.  In August 2007, the Planning Commission also opposed the proposal and recommended denial of the legislation.  City Council once again asked for additional time to consider the proposal.

Fast forward to 2009, now.  On April 29th, the 2005 bus shelter ad legislation was administratively withdrawn from City Council, and just two short weeks later, 2 new proposals were introduced.  On May 12th, Councilpersons Jones, Joost, and Johnson introduced legislation that provides an exemption from the sign ordinance for ads in transit shelters and restricts the subject matter of the ads (closely tracking the original 2005 legislative proposal). On that same date, Councilman Crescimbeni also introduced a bill; but Crescimbeni’s bill proposes to prohibit ads in transit shelters.

Enter one Mike Miller, JTA spokesperson and apparent masochist, on the scene once again. In a recent Jax Daily Record article, Miller pointed to a 9th circuit court of appeals decision saying that the situation for bus shelter ads had changed because of that decision.  According to Miller, the court decision stated that ads in bus shelters were permissible, especially if those shelters were for a public purpose.  I’m not sure what definition of “permissible” Miller is using, but my dictionary defines permissible as “capable of being allowed” – not required  to be allowed, so I’m not really sure exactly what the court decision changes.   Of course, I’m no lawyer, but then neither is Miller, so I guess that means our opinions stand on equal footing –  on this issue at least. 

Miller was further quoted in the Jax Daily Record article as saying that some potential ad subjects would be taboo if the exemption to the sign ordinance were passed.  Specifically, “alcohol, tobacco, firearms, gambling, political ads, anti-abortion, pro-choice and religion are among the topics banned.”   Even though I am no lawyer,  I recognize that under the First Amendment we all have the right of free speech and that right hasn’t changed since 2005 when it was originally pointed out that the City couldn’t restrict the subject matter of any bus shelter ads.  Of course that right to free speech does come with some restrictions.  For example, you don’t have the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.  But  certainly ads for alcohol, tobacco, firearms, etc.  on bus shelters could not be restricted – at least not without a potential court fight. 

So, if in renewing their efforts to get public-private partnerships with bus shelter ads in place, Miller and JTA are looking for another fight over the City’s sign ordinance and advertisers’ First Amendment rights, I believe they may have just found themselves one.  A public hearing on Jones, Joost, and Johnson’s proposal is scheduled for the next LUZ committee meeting on June 2nd and an additional City Council hearing has been scheduled for June 9th.

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