If you haven't noticed the lampposts along Mission Street, look again, for they are things of beauty. They're tall, red, and ornamented with several curlicues. They are, apparently, the pride and joy of the S.F. Department of Public Works, which imposes a fine of up to $300 on anyone it suspects of taping a flier to one of these elegant posts.
This past winter, the department went into full enforcement mode regarding its policy on posting fliers, and the citations started trickling in to the mailboxes of concert promoters, musicians, nonprofit groups, and activists. The fines add up quickly — $150 per flier attached “improperly” (a complicated designation) to a normal lamppost, garbage can, or bus shelter; $300 per flier posted to a “historic or decorative” lamppost (that's forbidden altogether). But the real reason that many are crying foul is that you can be fined even if you didn't put the damn thing up there.
The nonprofit group A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) is fighting its $6,000 in fines, most relating to an anti-war march it sponsored last fall. According to Richard Becker, the group's West Coast regional organizer, A.N.S.W.E.R. makes fliers for upcoming events available to anyone on its Web site, but has no control over what people do with them. Apparently, many amateur activists decorated Mission Street's lampposts with the anti-war fliers, and because A.N.S.W.E.R.'s name and contact info were listed, it got stuck with the fine.
“We have no intention of paying these fines — we consider them to be outrageous; we consider them to be an unconstitutional abridgement of our free speech,” Becker says. “For nonprofit groups like us, this is an important way of communicating and organizing. We do not have the money to buy billboards, and we can't spend millions on TV ads. I think this is a prejudicial policy.”
There are similar stories all over the city. Deb Zeller, an independent concert promoter, asked for an administrative hearing to challenge her $750 in fines. Since she never makes the fliers for the shows she presents, she thought she had an open-and-shut case. “I was naive,” she says, “I thought I could make them see reason.” To the administrative judge, it was open-and-shut: Zeller's company was named on the flier, therefore she was liable.
Zeller isn't giving up; she spent twice the amount of the fine to hire a lawyer to appeal the decision. “I don't believe in paying for something I didn't do, and I don't want them to think they can keep getting away with this,” Zeller says. “A lot of the clubs don't have time to fight it, so they just pay up.” Indeed, a DPW spokeswoman says the department received $100,000 in the past 12 months, from 22,000 individual citations.
Zeller's attorney, Ben Rosenfeld, filed a petition on behalf of A.N.S.W.E.R. in June, asking the S.F. Superior Court to review the constitutionality of the policy. He says the fear of fines keeps people from creating and distributing fliers, which amounts to an unreasonable prior restraint on free speech, and that the department's “guilty until proven innocent” stance deprives citizens of due process.
DWP wouldn't comment on this pending legal matter, but there's an easy way to see how deeply it believes in its policy. Make a couple hundred copies of a flier advertising a party for Public Works Director Fred Abadi. Put his address on the bottom: 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, City Hall, Room 348, S.F. 94102. Then plaster the fliers over every historic lamppost in the city, and wait to see if the citations roll into Abadi's mailbox.