Chicago censorship of pro-life sign?

Funny, how some things in Chicago just disappear. Like the former
lakefront airport, Meigs Field, bulldozed in a middle-of-the-night
blitzkrieg ordered by Mayor Richard Daley.

Or
a sign posted a few feet outside a North Side abortion clinic, offering women
in difficult, unplanned pregnancies a different, life-affirming
alternative.

Now this wasn't just a crude, hand-painted sign. It was a fancy backlit sign, costing thousands to create and display. It took up the entire side of an empty "periodical stand" similar to those French-looking bus shelters and other "street furniture" that Daley so loves.

But it wasn't just the sign that vanished. The entire structure (what we used to call a newsstand) was gone too. It seemingly vaporized just 10 days after the sign went up Feb. 9, even though the advertiser, Aid for Woman, contracted to have it displayed until May 3.

Someone must have really wanted the sign gone. But who? That's what Susan Barrett, executive director of Aid for Women, would like to know. But, so far, she's had no answers.

Some background: JCDecaux, a French ad firm that sold the ad space to Aid for Women, won a controversial contract in 2002 for a 20-year monopoly on sidewalk advertising in Chicago. For the right to sell the elegant advertising, the company paid the city $200 million. Aid for Women, 8 S. Michigan Ave., took out the ad to promote its alternative counseling, education and other assistance programs to pregnant women entering the Planned Parenthood clinic at LaSalle Drive and Division Street. Aid for Women offers the same caring  attention to troubled women that abortion clinics say they provide -- except for abortions and the pro-choice spin.

Some folks will automatically assume that the sign had one of those pro-life images that feature grisly pictures of aborted fetuses. It didn't. In fact, it was a stylish graphic picturing a contemplative, distressed woman with the words, "Unplanned pregnancy? What now?" Printed below was contact information for Aid for Women. That's it.

Why was the sign there in the first place? Some more background.

Last year the city enacted a controversial "bubble ordinance" that prohibits sidewalk counselors from getting any closer than 8 feet away from clinic users. The ordinance also prohibits people "in the public way" from displaying protest signs or "engaging in oral protest, education or counseling" within 50 feet of a health facility's entrance. Pro-life groups and the American Civil Liberties Union opposed the ban as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech rights. So, Aid for Women turned to the sign to help deliver its message.

Supporters of the ordinance, sponsored by Ald. Vi Daley, 43rd, argued that the ordinance is constitutional, citing a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hill v. Colorado, that approved such restrictions, as long as they were "narrowly tailored." But it is not a carte blanche prohibition against any form of speech outside the clinics. Any restriction must be "content-neutral" and leave open "ample alternative communication channels" for protesters and counselors. Thus, the sign.

The JCDecaux sales rep told Barrett in an e-mail, in boldface and italic: "In no way, was this a plan to stop Aid for Women from advertising at this location." He said the city ordered its removal, leaving the who-ordered question unanswered.

One could say that it was just a coincidence that the offending sign was in the 43rd Ward, which Vi Daley happens to represent, and who happened to sponsor the bubble ordinance, and who happened to be honored by Planned Parenthood, which happens to run the clinic.

Barrett said she has received no response from Vi Daley's office or the Chicago Department of Transportation to her inquiries about who ordered the sign removed. No surprise there. But as this is being written, the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based pro-life law center, is preparing a request under the Freedom of Information Act to smoke out who issued the order.

The Constitution protects political and commercial speech of all sorts. JCDecaux signs have advertised booze and featured a bikini-clad woman, but a tasteful sign that offends political correctness may not have made the cut.

If the city ordered the sign removed because of its content, it has a serious constitutional problem on its hands. Stay tuned.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune, where comments also are being posted.

Comments

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  • First: Idle speculation.
    Second: Removing a municipal structure upon which commercial media space was once leased in the public thoroughfare hardly constitutes a Free Speech issue. This entire premise is subjective.

  • This is an e-mail sent to me after the article appeared by a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation:

    Mr. Byrne:

    Just wanted to provide some info regarding your column today about the newsstand at the northwest corner of LaSalle/Division.

    This shelter had been scheduled for relocation in December 2009, before the current advertiser came into the picture. (The current advertiser did not start advertising until late January/early February.)

    The newsstand was originally installed over a year ago. It was intended for use by the newsstand operator on the southeast corner, but they never occupied the new newsstand. CDOT received a request for a newsstand two blocks east (Dearborn/Division), to be used by an existing operator. Because the LaSalle/Division newsstand was unused, the city relocated it to Dearborn/Division. The relocation also made sense because it would have taken several months to fabricate a new structure for Dearborn/Division.

    There is no cost to the city for these relocations--the street furniture contract calls for relocation of a certain percentage of street furniture at no cost to the city. Multiple relocations of street furniture have occurred over the years.

    Bottom line: This shelter was not relocated because of its advertising content. CDOT has no say whatsoever about advertising content. CDOT does not review/approve/remove advertisements based on content. Our focus is on the proper use of the public way, including the installation of street furniture.

    Thank you,

    Brian Steele

    CDOT

  • This is a great article. Thank you for calling this to the public's attention!

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