Federal Building Spent at Least $5,456 to Drown Out Trump Protester

Documents show that a federal agency installed lights partly to “deter public projection” on the SoMa building prompting questions of free speech rights.

Resistance to the Trump administration has come in several forms since November 2016, from giant inflatable Trump chickens bouncing around the Bay to a global Women’s March and good ole mass protests.

Alan Marling is one of many newfound “resistance artists” finding creative ways to remind everyone about the number of ongoing atrocities currently sanctioned by the federal government. He’s done this by using a light projector to shine largely anti-Trump statements related to news that fires him up that day. 

From supporting sexual assault survivors during the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice and accused attempted rapist Brett Kavanaugh to opposing the travel ban of majority-Muslim countries and condemning the act of caging immigrant children away from their parents, Marling has been out with his projector about once a week. His projections often take place at the Federal Building on Seventh and Brannan streets in SoMa but also on tech offices like Twitter’s lower Market Street building.

But in July 2019, the upper half of the building facing Seventh Street was no longer a reliable canvas. With the help of Oakland’s First Amendment Project, Marling filed a FOIA request that found a federal agency spent at least $5,456 — and possibly as much as $15,000 — on lights to deter projections on San Francisco’s Federal Building.

“That area was already well-lit,” Marling says. “ I cannot help but wonder how many thousands of dollars the federal government has spent installing and powering lights on both Mission and 7th that serve no purpose other than to suppress my First Amendment Rights.”

The General Services Administration, a federal agency that manages government buildings, first spent $5,456 in May 2019 to install lighting with the “hope to deter public projection on the building and further increase visibility along 7th [Street],” according to documents reviewed by SF Weekly. Marling noticed additional lights installed on the building facing Mission Street in November and filed another FOIA request. Reason for the lighting was simply titled “security lighting for annex and cafe” the second time around.  

“It’s right here in black and white that that’s what they’re trying to do,” said James Wheaton, founder and senior counsel of the First Amendment Project, based in Oakland. “The question is, can they do that? The answer is yes.”

Using public space for free speech isn’t protected in certain circumstances, so long as the denial of use is not on the basis of what’s being said, Wheaton says. This would include the speech method — like a projection, say — being considered a nuisance or affecting the use of the building and its inhabitants. Still, Wheaton advised Marling that pushing First Amendment rights in court is not likely to be fruitful especially with the pretext of needed security lighting. GSA also disagrees that the lights impede free speech.

“Recently installed exterior security lighting enhances the safety of building tenants and people who visit the San Francisco Federal Building,” GSA spokesperson Andra Higgs tells SF Weekly in an email. “There has been growing safety concerns by federal employees and neighborhood representatives about illegal activities on public sidewalks, city streets, and the plaza surrounding the San Francisco Federal Building.”

Though the agency spent thousands of dollars to discourage projections, Marling gets the last laugh: He bought a stronger projector and could simply keep upgrading.

Wheaton advises other projection activists to refrain from anything that could be considered a nuisance by waiting for a building’s inhabitants to leave and avoiding trespassing. 

Wheaton says the agency’s attempt to drown out Marling’s light is one of the most interesting free speech cases he’s seen in recent years. 

“It didn’t work is the funny thing,” he says. “We say, oh yea, let a thousand projectors shine.” 

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