The City of Fresno has a history of censoring ads, especially from social justice groups, on FAX buses for being “political” and “controversial.” Thirty-four years ago, the Fresno branch of the Women’s

The Politics of Censorship

By Ernesto Saavedra

May 27, Fresno Building Healthy Communities (BHC) launched its #Parks4All initiative, which highlights the need for quality parks in Fresno. As part of the initiative, BHC wanted to run an ad on Fresno Area Express (FAX) buses but was denied. The ad highlighted the disparities between the quality and quantity of parks in north Fresno compared to south Fresno.

The city and Lamar Advertising deemed the ad “political,” thereby violating Municipal Code Section 5-306, which reads “No political advertising matter or sign shall be displayed upon any bus or on transit property.” However, BHC say its ad is not political but educational. This case, which some see as censorship, is not the first time this has happened and brings into question what exactly is “political” as it relates to freedom of speech.

Fresno’s Park System Last in the Nation

The Trust for Public Land, which has a mission to help create and conserve green spaces, uses a Parkscore Index to evaluate and rank the park systems of the largest U.S. cities based on park access, park size, services and investments. For four years, Fresno has ranked last: 40 in 2012, 50 in 2013, 60 in 2014 and 75 in 2015 (each year, the number of cities evaluated increased). Many cite this as evidence of an overdue need for an updated park master plan.

Fresno’s park master plan has not been updated since 1989 and an update would bring needed improvements. “[The update] would allow the city to identify certain parcels to buy acquisition of land that are available throughout the city and transform them into parks,” said Leticia Corona of Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, a member of BHC. Corona also noted this would help identify new funding sources for parks and improve the maintenance of existing parks, something residents have been asking for a while.

“When we met with different communities, parks were identified as the No. 1 need and that’s very important…this is something they’ve been asking for years. The community is getting tired of ‘next year, next year,’ and we want to make sure the city prioritizes the needs identified by the community,” said Corona. However, the city has a different perspective.

June 9, during a budget hearing presentation for the Fresno City Council, Manuel A. Mollinedo, director for the Parks, After School, Recreation and Community Services (PARCS) department, alluded that the disparities are not that big and the city is doing a great job investing in parks. “Within the past four years…despite the financial difficulties, the city was still investing in trying to maintain the parks that it still has.” However, Mollinedo acknowledged that renovations for existing parks in south Fresno are needed and $5.8 million would make it happen. The City Council was listening to both sides, voting to approve a park master plan update.

It is clear that improvements need to happen with more intention on informing and engaging the community. BHC’s ad was an attempt to do that, yet the city pulled it, something other groups have dealt with in the past.

“Think” = “Don’t”

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter reinstated draft registration for males 18 years of age. Like many in the nation, the Fresno branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) protested. January 1981, when the draft registration started, WILPF entered into a contract with the city, paid the fees and had 45 placards placed on FAX buses that read “Think Before You Register for the Draft,” garnering plenty of publicity. Then City Manager Jerry Newfarmer, in response to protests from veteran groups, ordered them taken down because they were “controversial”; telling people to “think” before they register is presumably saying “don’t register for the draft.”

“Placing the placards was part of a national WILPF campaign,” said Sandra Iyall, president of the Fresno Branch of WILPF at that time. “The placards were taken down without contacting WILPF. They were found torn up in garbage bins,” said Iyall.

In a 4-3 vote, with Mayor Whitehurst voting against the placards, the city council upheld Newfarmer’s decision to take down the placards. At this point, WILPF decided to sue the city but to no avail.

In May, Superior Court Judge Hollis Best ruled against WILPF, supporting the city’s decision to remove the placards. WILPF appealed in June and the Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled that WILPF had failed to show abuse of discretion and denied the request to force the city to return the signs. Four months later, Superior Court Judge Frank Creede took the case. May 1982, Judge Creede ruled that the city had a right to remove draft placards but any advertising venture cannot ban political ads–that would be a violation of free speech protections. The next month WILPF announced that it will appeal Creede’s ruling, which was upheld in 1984.

Howard Watkins, part of the legal team on the appeals for WILPF, said that ironically, many still saw the placards. “WILPF held many press conferences where the placards were shown, probably reaching over 100,000 people on television. Way more than they would have on the buses.”

The parallels between the case of WILPF and BHC are hard to ignore and beg the question regarding what is “political” and, most important, free speech.

The Issue Is Free Speech

In solidarity with WILPF, the Latin American Support Committee planned to run placards on FAX buses that read “No Vietnam in El Salvador.” Like WILPF’s placards, they were “controversial” and brought before the City Council. However, unlike WILPF’s placards, the City Council unanimously approved to run their placards.

Pam Whalen, currently an organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union in Fresno, was at that City Council meeting and to her the important issue is free speech. “It’s important that we know the history of free speech in this country, which includes the right to petition our government.” Referencing BHC’s case, Whalen said, “Buses are covered with ads promoting energy drinks and gambling, that’s ‘free speech,’ but not when promoting healthy alternatives and petitioning the government.”

Watkins shared Whalen’s thoughts, adding that what makes an ad “political” is debatable, “Virtually any ad can be deemed ‘political.’ For example, ads promoting car dealerships, casinos and energy drinks can be interpreted as promoting a capitalist political system.”

The cases above are part of a long history of free speech fights and repression, a history too familiar to Fresno.

In the middle of Mariposa Mall in downtown Fresno, across from the clock tower under a tree lies a plaque that reads “NO. 873 SITE OF THE FRESNO FREE SPEECH FIGHT OF THE INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD—At the corner of Mariposa and I Streets, from October 1910 to March 1911, the Industrial Workers of the World fought for the right of free speech in their efforts to organize Fresno’s unskilled labor force. This was the first fight for free speech in California, and the first attempt to organize the valley’s unskilled workers.”

Looks like not much has changed in more than a century.

*****

Ernesto Saavedra is the editor of the Community Alliance. Contact him at ernesto.fresnoca@gmail. com.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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