A controversial billboard that was taken down last week in Northland brought up some thorny issues of free speech and community standards.
In most cases, free speech wins out. Just because it’s provocative doesn’t mean it’s illegal, said Anthony Celebrezze, spokesman for the Columbus Department of Building and Zoning Services.
“From our standpoint, we cannot regulate content because of free speech,” Celebrezze said, referring to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 in which the justices rejected a sign ordinance in Arizona that restricted a pastor’s right to post religious symbols. The ruling opened up lawsuits against municipalities that restricted outdoor messages.
Yet messages that involve hate crimes, hate speech and nudity are subject to regulation, Celebrezze said.
“That would end up falling to code enforcement or police department, based on what the sign says,” he said. “It’s a really tough area to be specific about it. You have free speech and community standards to figure out. Where that point is with the two of those is tough.”
The recent dustup in Northland involved a billboard on East Dublin-Granville Road, displaying a senior woman wearing a spacesuit, holding a helmet in one hand and an insect gun in the other – some thought it was an airsoft gun – digitally enhanced to look like an alien-fighting weapon, with the words, “It’s my birthday b*tch.”
The billboard also included references to two social-media accounts from creator and social-media star Ross Smith, an internet sensation with millions of followers worldwide.
Bill Logan, vice chairman of the Northland Community Council development committee, said he had received several calls, mostly from women complaining about the insensitive use of “b*itch,” an apparent suggestion of violence and the timing of the message, which was just prior to two mass shootings: Aug. 3 in El Paso, Texas, and Aug. 4, in Dayton.
Smith said the billboard in no way was connected to either tragedy and was up before the shootings had occurred. He said the ad was supposed to be a warm and humorous tribute to his birthday, his real-life grandmother mocking a blitz on Area 51.
The two regularly appear in videos together, taking a light poke at typically noncontroversial topics.
Chris Avondet, general manager of the Columbus office of Lamar Advertising Co., which provides the billboard space, on Aug. 6 said the company hadn’t received any complaints from the community and there were no plans to remove it.
In less than an hour, Avondet changed course, saying the billboard would be replaced. By the end of the day, it was an ad for the U.S. Marine Corps.
“The Northland Community Council appreciates Mr. Avondet’s good judgment,” Logan said. “Everyone has their rights, and part of their rights are to demonstrate it; in this case, the celebration of a birthday … .
“But when anyone does it on a communitywide basis or a public basis, it’s highly recommended they think about the community and the impact their graphic statement will make and what the issues are,” Logan said. “Think ahead and choose a course of action that satisfies our interest and audience.”
Celebrezze said it’s rare that people complain about the content of a billboard, but neighborhoods are at liberty to challenge billboard companies on the ads they find offensive.
He cautioned: “Art is going to depend on the individual who sees it.”
Smith, 26, said he is a graduate of the University of Dayton and has an affection for the school and town. He has started a crowd-funding platform to raise money for the victims of the shooting there. He said his goal is to raise $250,000. As of Aug. 8, $4,000 in contributions had been received.
“That’s the direction people should be focused on,” he said.