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San Anselmo City Council Moves to Silence Ford Greene

Ford Greene has been putting signs up on the side of the building he owns in San Anselmo. Nothing graphic, violent or pornographic, yet the City Council of San Anselmo recently voted to curtail his free speech in the form of these signs.
Sign erected on Ford Greene's property on August 10, 2005.

Dear Free Speech Supporters:

I have mixed emotions about the San Anselmo Town Council Meeting that took place last night.

For me what was inspiring was the approximately 125 people showed up and the comments they made. The chambers were packed, as was the back hallway. The crowd spilled out onto the lawn. The only other time I have seen so many people there was when a couple of years ago there was a hearing on a resolution to condemn the U.S.A. Patriot Act.

Each side received 20 minutes.

At the outset I sought to disqualify Paul Chignell because he had written a number of e-mails which clearly showed he had pre-judged the issue. That motion was denied.

Then the appellant gave his presentation. Mr. Newell, who relied on prepared notes in a binder, zipped through his presentation. He argued that I had not established that the absence of the variance would result in any hardship to me, and he claimed that the Freedom Sign was a risk to traffic safety and would depreciate property values. He stated that the basis of the Planning Commission's grant of the variance was the content of the messages of the sign, which constituted unfair discrimination. Condemning the sign as "illegal," he rhetoricated if it was not illegal, why did I apply for a variance, and concluded that it was illegal when erected and I knew it was illegal. He stated that I have alternative means of communicating my message and that the sign was just another billboard. He contended that to grant the variance meant that it was free speech for Greene but not for you because the Council would be granting the right to me but not to others. Using a small facsimile of the sign, he filled it up with the maximum amount of letters to make the claim that I intend to distract people with the sign, and that such is a traffic hazard.

After Newell was done, the Council asked Police Chief Charles Maynard whether there had been any traffic accidents on Sir Francis Drake that in any way had been related to the sign. He said truthfully, no, there had not been any.

Since I was working on my papers to ensure there was a complete record yesterday until a half hour before the hearing, I spoke extemporaneously with no prepared text. Thus, I am not able to give as full a report of my own presentation as I can of Mr. Newell's because I took notes as he spoke. But this is what I recall.

Initially, I discussed the "traffic studies" that Mr. Newell relied on in his appeal to contend the sign is a traffic hazard. I said that Brendan Wallace, the author of two of the articles, noted that most traffic studies are "correlational" or statistical in nature. This means that one cannot prove causation from such studies. Wallace said that the best form of study is a "before and after" study. I argued that is what the situation is with my sign. It is a before and after study. I noted that, according to San Anselmo's own reports, from 1980-1990 there had been over 200 accidents on the east bound stretch of Sir Francis Drake that ranges from Bella Vista Avenue to The Hub, about a quarter mile, in the middle of which is my building. Tying Chief Maynard's testimony together with these other items, I made the point that it appeared that my sign actually decreased the risk of traffic accidents.

Then, I discussed the aesthetics of the sign's size. Based on the fact that as one approaches the sign the other signs in the area leading up to it ascend in scale and height and that mine fits right in.

I talked about how my situation is unique because there is a confluence of my personal integrity, professional avocation, courage and willingness to take the risk to speak up and out, with my living in and working out of the building and its unique characteristics for communication, specifically, the ability to reach thousands of people a day.

I said that while my detractors claimed that the issue was not about content, I believed this claim was a pretext. I said that if I had been hanging signs that said "Support Our Troops" it would not be likely that all this would be occurring.

I also discussed that part of the uniqueness of the situation was the value that the readers of the sign obtain. I talked about how hardly anyone was neutral about the sign and that is what it was supposed to do, get people to think, to interact, to raise controversy.

The public comment time was like going to democratic church. Support for the sign seemed to range at about 80%. The 20% detractors were often loud and rude, clapping and cheering in spite of the fact that Mayor Breen admonished all of us at the outset not to do so. It brings to my mind that such conduct is bullying in nature and that often times our side, the good guys, are way too nice and polite. I think we should fight back and get in their faces just the way they get in ours. I think this one of the reasons why they are threatened by me, because I can and am willing to do so.

There were a lot of intelligent and heartfelt comments that I thought were beautiful.

Just before the close, I offered to cut 24 square feet off my sign and dismiss the lawsuit in federal court. The Council did not directly respond, but did indicate a willingness to talk more.

At the end of the day, I got shot down, 4 to 0. Not one vote. They voted to "stay enforcement" for 30 days. We'll see if a deal can be worked out.

How do I feel? When I see the disparity between the way San Anselmo treats commercial speech and how the town treats political speech, my sense of justice is offended. There are literally scores of commercial violations of the San Anselmo Sign Ordinance that continue week in and week out, year in and year out free of "enforcement." San Anselmo has no "enforcement officer," so the only time any enforcement is made is when there are complaints. Guess what, folks? The people who hate my speech complain and thus there is enforcement against my sign. Tell me that is "content neutral."

In sum, I am a bit tired and pissed off. The process last night was great but the result unfortunate. Fortunately it has only made me more determined in the free speech fight. I really appreciate and am vitalized by your support.

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Re: San Anselmo City Council Moves to Silence Ford Greene

What did his signs say?


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