Oklahoma City rewrites rules for ads on light poles, bus-stop benches

Thursday, August 30, 2001

OKLAHOMA CITY — The City Council has voted to restrict messages on bus-stop benches and light poles after banners promoting gay pride offended some residents.

Now organizations are barred from using city light poles and bus benches to promote social, political or religious issues. In the past, groups could use light-pole banners and bus benches to advertise just as long as the messages related to an event.

“This is a major step toward diminishing free speech in Oklahoma,” said Bill Rogers, an attorney and member of the Cimarron Alliance, which put up the banners for gay-pride festivities. “They treat the population of this city as though we’re a multitude of idiots.”

The council voted 6-3 for the new policy on banners and 7-2 for the bus-stop bench restrictions during a crowded meeting Aug. 28.

The city will consider each application for use of the banner brackets individually, deciding whether the message on the proposed banner is social, religious or political, said Karen Farney, the city’s public information director. The new policy could prohibit messages promoting prayer and drug-abuse prevention.

The ordinance allows advertising that would “promote or celebrate the city, its civic institutions, or public activities or events.”

The Cimarron Alliance submitted a banner design to the city and got permission to put up their banners on 44 light poles from June 1 through July 7. But city workers removed the banners, which included torch flames and rainbows, on June 27 without telling the group.

“The guise was that they needed them for Fourth of July banners, which is ridiculous,” Rogers said. He said Fourth of July banners could have gone up on several vacant brackets.

“Had the banners been for Martin Luther King Day, there would have been no problem. I think it would please all those people if all the gays and lesbians would take their banners and leave,” he said.

The Cimarron Alliance threatened to sue after city crews removed the banners, prompting officials to put them back up until July 17 to fulfill the remaining days of the group’s permit.

Farney said many citizens complained about the gay-pride banners. She said the incident showed officials they needed a clear policy on issue.

“There was a lot of confusion,” she said.

Tina Hughes, assistant municipal counsel, said the city is not violating organizations’ free-speech rights. Since the brackets and benches are city property, officials have a right to restrict advertising, she said.

“People will assume that’s the city’s message,” Hughes said. “The city has chosen to stay out of those arguments.”

“I think we have set up a good, appropriate process that will give everyone a level playing field when discussing what uses are appropriate for banners and what aren’t,” Mayor Kirk Humphreys was quoted as saying in the Aug. 29 Daily Oklahoman.

The newspaper reported that Humphreys said the city was staying away from ads promoting social advocacy messages such as gay pride.

“I don’t want to say we expect to go to court over this,” Humphreys was quoted as saying. “But we do get sued by people all the time.”

All permit applications for use of banners have been on hold for weeks, including another one from the Cimarron Alliance. The group wants to display banners in October, which is Gay and Lesbian History Month.

Nathaniel Batchelder, director of the Peace House volunteer agency, said he views the banner controversy as a civil rights issue.

“The gays have a long way to go,” he said before the Aug. 28 vote. “Like thousands of people, I was very inspired and thrilled to see the banners. It was very important for a lot of people who were hiding their sexual orientation.”

Batchelder said Oklahomans need to change their image by becoming more open-minded.

“It’s very unfortunate this happened at a time when leadership in Oklahoma is trying to focus on bringing new industry into Oklahoma,” he said. “The state can celebrate the diversity of its population or it can reaffirm those old stereotypes.”

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