The final battle for the telephone poles and lampposts of Pittsburgh may be on.
So far this spring, city inspectors have clamped down on everyone from concert promoters to literary-event organizers, even the owner of a lost dog, threatening them with fines for tacking up advertising. One of their targets, American Shorts Reading Series director Suzanne Pace, calls it "ridiculousness. How are people supposed to get information on things? People have been doing this kind of postering since time immemorial."
Promoters like Pace argue that such practices are part of what gives life to urban centers. "I've been putting them up for four years, all over the city," she says of the professionally printed posters for her monthly series, which runs March through August. For the May 25 show, Pace says she hung perhaps 50 posters in outdoor locations throughout the East End. A city inspector from the Department of Public Works called her a few days after the show.
"He told me he was in possession of three posters. He told me he had taken Polaroids of them," adding that his warning was "a courtesy." If he found any others, Pace says, he said he would fine her $300 for each one, "because the mayor is cracking down on the city litterbugs, and he is considering the fliers as litter. That was my first couple of strikes."
In early June, city inspectors went so far as to threaten to fine a dog-sitter who stuck about 100 "Lost Dog" fliers all over Friendship. Some veteran concert-promoters (and ubiquitous flierers) are taking the warnings they received seriously enough to become suddenly press-shy. Even local groups whose freely distributed bumper stickers have been found on poles were warned about a possible fine; that's what happened this spring to Carnegie Mellon University's radio station, WRCT, says station general manager Alex Smith.
"The issue is," says Pace, "in places like Bloomfield, Regent Square, especially Squirrel Hill, none of the businesses want you to put [posters] up in their business." A few locally owned stores have regular spaces for fliers, but not the nationally owned chains, she says. "It's increasingly becoming more difficult to do any grassroots marketing/PR/advertising ..."
The ordinance against fliers in the city's right-of-way ... essentially the streets and sidewalks ... took effect in 1998, says Ben Carlise, administrator of the Department of Public Works' Bureau of Public Space Management, which enforces the rule. According to the ordinance: "Unauthorized signs along City roads and on utility poles are a danger because they are intended to distract motor vehicle operators and because they often obstruct views of other vehicles." They also "spoil the natural beauty that is an invaluable asset treasured by residents, commuters and visitors."
Carlise says he has been implementing this ordinance, with its $300 fine for each poster, during his five years with the city. Peace activists and other long-time event promoters say the city's recent fines and warnings are unprecedented. But Carlise maintains there has been no change in the rate of enforcement.
Fliering, he says, "is a problem all over the city. A lot of people don't even realize there's a law against it. It's an eyesore. It's littering."
Inspectors work out of six different Public Works offices throughout the city, he says. They remove many fliers and call up perpetrators if the number found is deemed excessive ... and if the stapler-wielding culprit can be located. "When you talk to somebody and inform them, they usually work with you," Carlise says.
But even in the law, it's unclear who should be held responsible for each piece of paper: "The person(s), organization(s), or business(es) named or promoted on the sign posted in violation of this Chapter shall be deemed the owner responsible for the violation ..." the ordinance says. But a mere sentence later, it adds: "Nothing in this Chapter shall be interpreted to make any person, organization, or business liable for any signs posted by persons over whom he/she/it has no control."
On June 7, the city took Ceci Wheeler to Housing Court with 15 citations, threatening $4,500 in fines for 15 posters advertising the March 18 anti-war march and rally marking the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
Wheeler, of Knoxville, is a member of the Anti-War Committee of the Garfield-based Thomas Merton Center, which planned the protest. The city cited her, inspector Alan Asbury told District Justice Eugene Zielmanski, not because it had found her contact information directly on the sign ... it wasn't there ... but because her name was on the special-events permit the city requires for such rallies. Wheeler did not post the signs, she said. Anti-War Committee head Pete Shell told City Paper before the hearing that anyone could have printed and hung them, because they were first posted on the ultimate public right-of-way ... the Internet.
Jon Pushinsky, Wheeler's Downtown attorney, asked inspectors in court whether they saw Wheeler post any signs.
"No I did not," Asbury answered.
"Did you interview anyone who posted the signs? Did you interview anyone who said they saw Wheeler post the signs? Did you interview anyone who was instructed by Ceci Wheeler to post the signs?"
Asbury answered "No" every time.
"She took a permit out for special events," maintained Diane Albring, another inspector presenting the city's case.
"Does it say she was going to post any signs" on the permit? Pushinsky said. "Is there anything to indicate Ceci Wheeler had anything to do with the signs? Do you know who posted the signs?"
"No," Albring admitted
"She caused to have them put up," Asbury argued.
"Name one person she caused," Pushinsky countered.
"I wouldn't know," Asbury said.
After the charges were dismissed, Pete Shell said his Anti-War Committee will continue to advertise demonstrations by fliering. The group does plan to discuss including posting advice on its next broadsides.
Shell's group had feared that the large fine was motivated by the nature of their protest. Carlise says that contention has "no basis whatsoever. We would never target anyone for what they believe." He points out that housing developers are frequent targets of city sign inspectors. Indeed, on June 7, a lawyer for Ryan Homes appeared before Justice Zielmanski just prior to Wheeler, facing three citations for large blue-and-white signs advertising Patriot Pointe, a new development in West Mifflin. Two of the citations were dismissed, while Ryan paid two-figure court costs for the third.
Such skirmishes are likely to continue, as new staple-gunners and package-tapers arise. Two identical posters for Mordant Productions' "Dead Man's Party," a gothic rock show at The Oakland Café, were on the only crowded pole on Forbes Avenue between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon on June 9. The show had passed from this realm in late May.
Promoter Joe Presley, of Park Place, says volunteers put up "probably about 100 to 200" fliers for that show ... Mordant's first. "Maybe they heard about [the show] on the Internet, but now they've heard about it when they're walking down the street," he says. "For [posters] to be effective, we have to put them up every weekend.
"As a new, do-it-yourself group, it's the only effective way to get the word out to the masses," he says. Presley says he's aware of possible fines, though the city has never warned him about his fliers.
"We do intend to keep fliering," he says. "We're going to see if it's effective."
Suzanne Pace, of American Shorts, isn't so confident "I can't afford to pay the fine," she says. "So I'm going to be a little more cautious." Then she gives the problem a little more thought.
"I was thinking of making fake fliers about Bob O'Connor," she says. "We'll see if they can trace it back to his office."