Is It Legal to Project ‘Shithole’ Onto a Building?

Anti-Trump messages projected onto walls are funny, alright, but are they legal? SF Weekly shines some light on the subject.

Buildings across the U.S.A. were lit up with protest projections this weekend, in response to the president’s latest shitty remarks. Most notably, projection artist Robin Bell scored the absolute coup de grâce by successfully projecting the word “Shithole” onto the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. for about 40 minutes Saturday night, as seen below, before hotel security shut that shit down.  

We also saw similar projections right here in San Francisco Friday night. The S.F. Federal Building at Mission and 7th Street had its walls projected with messages like “Shithole President,” an announcement for a March for Impeachment on Jan. 20, and a large cartoon image of the president grabbing the Statue of Liberty where her genitals would be located.

A local activist collective called Resistance SF is taking credit for the San Francisco projections. Resistance SF has also coordinated such beauties as projecting ‘Fuck Trump’ onto the S.F. Ferry Building, a ‘TrumpCare Kills’ projection in Oakland, and the “@Jack is Complicit” projections on the Twitter building every Wednesday night.

But are these shenanigans legal? Particularly if they use vulgar terminology like “Shithole” in public view? SFPD did not return comment for this article, but Resistance SF took a brief time out from their current “#96hours of direct action and #NonCompliance to #ReclaimMLK” to respond.

“Occasionally we get questions from security or law enforcement, but no real issues in the Bay,” a representative tells SF Weekly. “That can vary a lot from place to place.”

Robin Bell, who did the projections onto the Trump Hotel, finds that police leave him alone as long as he’s not creating a public danger. “When we first started doing it, we were concerned and we reached out for legal advice,” Bell told the Los Angeles Times in a May 2017 interview. “But from the research we did, it was legal. The one thing we can’t do is block traffic. We can’t create an impediment on the sidewalk.”

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh wrote a Washington Post analysis of whether it was legal to project “Pay Trump Bribes Here” onto the Trump Hotel, a stunt which Robin Bell did indeed pull off. Turns out that building security can ask you to stop it, and they are within their rights to block your projection. But the police probably won’t do anything.

“A specially designed law might well be able to forbid all projecting of text or images onto others’ property,” Volokh says. “But existing law likely doesn’t, at least unless the projection so interferes with the business (and for a considerable time) as to constitute an actionable ‘nuisance.’”

“I would add that it would be hard to show that a projected message is a ‘nuisance’ in the legal sense of the word, at least unless the message causes some harmful physical effects (e.g., it shines brightly into some guests’ windows and keeps them up at night),”  he continues. “But it seems to me correct to say that any claim by property owners, under existing tort law, should be raised under a nuisance theory rather than a trespass theory. Whether a legislature should enact a new statutory right not to have text or images projected onto your property is a separate matter.”

These laws may change, and Trump might get mad one day and issue an executive order. But for now, it appears that as long as the projecting artists are responsible enough to not create safety hazards or nuisances for the building’s inhabitants, the projecting is allowed.

“We try to approach street projection with much care and professionalism,” Resistance SF tells SF Weekly. “If folks are looking to get started I highly recommend the Manual for Urban Projection.”

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