Community Post

When Free Speech Becomes Vandalism

Some “activists” have recently posted provocative signs without the owner’s permission on the Philadelphia Cheesesteak building at 23rd & Union.

I have a couple of problems with this, but first I’ll provide some background.

I discovered this issue when I recently spoke to the representative of the Philadephia Cheesesteak property to ask him to clean up graffiti on the building.  I let him know that someone had plastered large signs featuring the words “YES” and “NO” along with images of a plant sprouting and a handgun.

The property manager says that those signs were posted without the permission of the property owner.  Someone did call the property manager asking for permission and was instructed to email a permission request that could be forwarded to the property owner.  The email permission request never arrived, so permission to post the signs was never granted by the owner.

I have two problems with these signs.

First of all, even though the “activists” may believe they have a compelling message and good intentions, they should have secured permission from the property owner before posting these signs.  Private property rights are fundamental rights that predate the right to free speech. 

My other problem regards the content of these signs. 

Given the property’s tragic history of gun violence, I personally take issue with any individual or group who posts handgun images on this particular property in order to bring attention to themselves or their ideas.  Who are these “activists” to presume that my neighbors and I need a reminder that gun violence plagues our community?  

The neighbors who live around 23rd and Union are humble, anonymous folks.  A few of us went out early last Sunday morning and pulled weeds for an hour at the intersection.  I’ve been calling property owners about cleaning up graffiti.  We each do our little part to try and make the neighborhood better. 

I don’t think we deserve to have someone’s provocative “media campaign” shoved down our throats. 

0 thoughts on “When Free Speech Becomes Vandalism

  1. take another bong hit, bonghits for jesus…. it is just a little art activism.

  2. I saw that too, and assumed that they felt like that particular building was a good place for the signs *because* of the tragedy there. And because so much of the area is plastered with gang tags. I’m actually pretty impressed that they went to the trouble of calling to try to get permission to post their signs before putting them up.

    I wasn’t offended by it, but I also had the thought that we didn’t really need another reminder of the plague of gangs and violence in our neighborhood. And that the signs seemed a little trite.

  3. I noticed the signs as well, and honestly thought they were tactful and the message right.

    I kind of disagree with the point that calling attention to the violence is the ‘wrong’ thing. You can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist or didn’t happen.

    I imagine those signs are meant to be a message that the community does not approve of gun violence, do you disagree with that message?

    Yes, they need permission to post such things, but that’s the property owners problem, not yours, so I don’t see how you can complain about it.

  4. Free speech is right.
    This person has a right to air their grievances as well as you do.
    Luckily they can do it with out all caps and with out calling people names.

  5. with everything that’s going on in our neighborhood and in our world – THIS is what you want to focus on?

  6. Yes Erin, helping prevent vandalism of private property is one of the things I’m currently focusing on to help make this neighborhood a better place to live. I’m asking local businesses to clean up graffiti on their property and I’m helping clean up trash and weeds. My focus is on very tactical projects that will deliver measurable improvements to the neighborhood and that I can accomplish by myself or with a small team of neighbors in a relatively short period of time.

    It’s a mistake to assume that, because some of the problems we face are large and complicated, there’s nothing tangible that an individual or a small group can do to create positive change.

    I’m curious whether those of you leaving sarcastic comments are actually involved in doing anything to make this neighborhood a better place. If you are, please leave evidence of such accomplishment with your next sarcastic comment.

  7. I agree with nicpottier and I wish that the posters would have been put up with cooperation of the property owner so this would not have become an issue.

  8. Hell, this ‘vandalism’ was so tasteful and, dare I say it, location-appropriate, that it looked intentional to me as I walked by last weekend. “Right On,” I remarked, and I wanted to compliment the building owner. Now I hear that the building owner isn’t the one in line for praise.

    Seriously, some of the idiotic tagging, the behavior in cars on the roads, the theft from yards, the assault in and around busses, the muggings in broad daylight, and the burglaries, and THIS is the type of ‘vandalism’ you have a problem with?

    This neighborhood needs a good scouring, but it’s not these well-designed posters that I’m referring to. It’s the gangbangers who try to take over parks, the mentally ill who are dumped in the ‘containment zone’ and allowed to roam around, and the crackheads that need to be cleaned up.

  9. We can all judge the relevance of the project but unless you own the building, it doesn’t matter. Getting these signs off will surely not be easy if wheat paste was used as the adhesive. Claiming free speech is ridiculus as the courts have upheld limitations on free speech many times. There are places people are allowed to post bills – 23rd and Cherry- but if you get caught posting these on private property, it’s still vandalism no matter how one tries to wrap it up in a constitutional amendment. I would much rather have this than some tag, but I’d rather be done with the cleanup of this kind of stuff myself.

  10. i’m supportive of the signs. my first reaction was, “thank god somebody is saying it”.

    I wonder if you would feel differently if you knew the sponsor? Is it a neighborhood organization? Or just somebody spouting their own personal views? Does it matter?

    bh4j, what are you doing specifically? since you called out others, let’s hear what you’re up to–kinda curious.

  11. I already answered your question about what I’m doing…see the reply I made to Erin.

  12. possibly a refresher of some definitions is in order. my comment was not sarcastic – it was more along the lines of surprised disbelief.

    regarding “vandalism”: did they permanently alter or destroy any aspect of the building or property? was it malicious defacement or destruction? those are both common definitions of vandalism.i guess one could argue that it is, but i think most people would say no (and the small sampling on this post seems to agree). this is NOT on the same level as tagging or garbage dumping.

    and actually, i don’t have to justify my involvement in anything to you – especially not given your attitude and seeming unwillingness to invite critique or discussion. but that’s great that you’re involved in picking up garbage.

    if it’s truly that much of an issue – certainly the property owner is able to take it down and communicate with the people who initially asked their permission. i can understand that if the posters thought they hadn’t received a response, they might have assumed that the property owner was MIA or uninvolved, as is frequently the case with property owners in many areas, this neighborhood included. should they have waited until the received permission? probably. i’m just saying that a little perspective is in order.

  13. No word about the gang graffiti next to the signs though? Nice to see the priority of what to bitch about.

  14. “Who are these “activists” to presume that my neighbors and I need a reminder that gun violence plagues our community?”-bonghitsforjesus
    Is it better to overlook what is going on than to address it head on? We can all agree that in the past couple years our community has lost too many young men to gun violence. This ad merely addresses the problem of gun violence and proposes a partial remedy for it. The illegal marijuana trade brings gun violence into our community. If marijuana were legal, gun violence would go down. As someone who still misses joking around with Allen(RIP) in class, misses messing with little Quincy(RIP) at the park, misses Tyrone’s(RIP) warm greeting at the YMCA, and misses seeing Donnie play basketball, I did not find the ad in the least bit offensive to the our community. I found it to be a powerful and just message for a move in the right direction for the good of our community. Whenever I walk by Philly’s, the fact that it is closed is an instant reminder of how gun violence has plagued our community. This sign takes that gun violence and attempts to do something progressive.

  15. I would like to add a “thank you” to bonghitsforjesus for their clear concern and progressive approach to our communities improvement. I just believe that there is a whole lot more offensive graffiti in our community. Before we focus our efforts on getting rid of advocacy ads against gun violent, we should focus on the graffiti that promotes gun violence-the gang tags.

  16. Dude (or may I call you “BITCH”), what I find funny about your post (bh4j) is that I saw those signs before we started weeding on Sunday and the whole time I was feeling good b/c I was doing the “yes” sign, not the “no”. (Unless that’s a picture of a weed under the “yes.”)

    I’m w/ nic and bulldog206 on this one.

  17. Thanks for the thoughtful comments Bulldog. To the point in your last message, I’m focusing on any vandalism that I see in that area. I don’t differentiate between “good” vandalism and “bad” vandalism because that’s entirely subjective. My points are that the property owner didn’t give permission, and I’m suspicious of anyone using gun imagery to make a point at that location.

  18. Krgl, I’m glad I was able to enlighten you. And thank you for spending Sunday weeding.

  19. Thank you for your feedback Erin. To briefly address your points:

    1. Although your mindset may have been one of suspended disbelief, I took your tone to be sarcastic because you made your statement but didn’t back it up and did not directly address the arguments I made in my original post. Lots of comments on this and other boards fall into what I call the “lazy commenter” category where the writer jots down immediate impressions but fails to adequately address the original argument or information they’re commenting about.

    2. Regarding definitions of vandalism, I think you’re venturing into the realm of the subjective. I spoke with the representative of the property owner and he said the signs were placed there without permission. They are glued to the glass so some expense will be involved in removing them.

    On the west-facing side of the building there is also some graffiti that is either painted or etched into the glass. Several commentors have tried to differentiate between good and bad graffiti, so I invite you to look at the front of the building and tell me if there’s any difference between the posters and the graffiti, knowing that the building owner approved of neither. If by next week some advertising posters go up over the YES and NO posters, will you consider that be vandalism or some kind of acceptable free speech?

    I prefer to use the objective measure of private property rights. How would you feel if these signs were pasted onto your windows and you had to go to the time and expense of removing them?

    3. Regarding justification of your neighborhood involvement. I’m not asking you to justify, I’m just implying that your comments would hold more weight with me if you were actually involved in the community.

    There’s a guy in my neighborhood who picks up trash as he walks his dog every morning. He didn’t tell anyone he was doing it. It’s just his little contribution to the neighborhood but I’ll bet that guy does more for the community than 99% of the readers of CDN.

    I hope that I don’t seem to be not inviting of critique just because my comments are pugilistic. Your first comment was a one-liner so it was hard to gauge the appropriate reply.

    4. To your last paragraph. One shouldn’t rely on assumptions. The law is on the side of the property owner who says he/she didn’t give permission. Those signs shouldn’t be there merely by the fact that the owner didn’t approve their placement. It’s the simple, black-and-white nature of laws that make our society run so smoothly.

    And regarding your view that perspective is in order, I’ve lived here for six years and I’m impatient waiting for things to get better. So I think I have an appropriate perspective.

  20. The graffiti was included in my call to the building owner’s representative. If you re-read my article you may glean some further insight as to why I wrote it.

  21. S, thank you for your comments.

    You’ve made a couple of arguments that I will address.

    First of all, a number of other commenters have tried to differentiate between “good” and “bad” vandalism, but that attempt is entirely subjective. The posters shouldn’t be there soley because they were placed on private property without the owner’s permission.

    Secondly, you along with some of the other commenters have made a general argument that there are more serious problems that should be addressed. This is a “straw man” argument: instead of addressing either of my two arguments you’re creating a new argument (a straw man) to attack (the argument that the poster issue deserves more attention than any other arguments). I didn’t make that argument in the article I wrote, yet you and several commenters are replying to that argument. This is unfortunate because it leaves you basically arguing with yourself.

    What you might do instead of pursuing this argument is to either address the two points I made or ask the CDN guys about the criteria they use to determine which articles get top billing, just for your own edification.

  22. it were a political/social statement that I didn’t agree with, I might be concerned, but probably not – unless it were something from the NRA, or Patriots for Torture. I might object to a poster size photo of Dick Cheney – he’s such a nasty man. I’d notice something from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, but I don’t think it would bother me. I really like what was posted. As to the issue of private property, yes, the posters are an affront to the sacred right, but I somehow can’t get too exercised about it. They seem to improve on the looks of the building. I say, let a thousand anti-gun posters bloom around the CD.

    I don’t understand the “suspicious of anyone using gun imagery to make a point at that location.” Suspicious of what? Intentionally bringing down property values? Sounds a little paranoid to me.

    Oh yeah,the first sign of an impending nervous breakdown is overweening self-righteousness.

  23. I highly approve of the msg, especially at that location. Permission was not granted, however, so it’s the owners call as to whether or not they come down.

  24. “I don’t think we deserve to have someone’s provocative “media campaign” shoved down our throats.” – bonghits4jesus

    I think the general tone here is that perhaps maybe you don’t have as good a grasp on your neighbors thoughts as you think you do.

    I don’t think any of us disagree that it is against the law, but sometimes change requires bending the rules a bit, and I applaud the gumption, talent and thought that went into putting those posters up.

    As another poster said, if these start popping up on abandoned property around the CD, I’m all for it. Put a few on the car wash will ya?

  25. i think these signs are perfect and timely. Too many young black men are killing each other due to crappy social/society/ego/etc. reasons. why not have a subtle reminder in ur car-polluting commute or stroller pushing hustle of what is really important to remember. Maybe even someone high on crack or the local prost*tute might take a moment to dwell on the beauty of life as we might know it at this particular time in the solar system vs. losing it all at a bad judgement call…

  26. thank you, to those of you weeding on sunday morning! i read this blog daily, but have never commented on anything. i had to do something sunday morning, and noticed you guys weeding at the gas station (23rd/union). i’m glad i’m able to say thanks for doing something like that.

    i don’t know what to think of the posters on the windows of the cheeseteak place. at first, i thought it was in bad taste. if i remember correctly, didn’t someone demand that the memorial at the front door be cleaned up? i feel when you’re driving by, the poster of a gun just reminds locals of what has happened there. i also feel like it tells drivers who are in an unfamiliar neighborhood, “hey, you’re in a bad neighborhood”…
    i don’t feel unsafe, and walk along union often. i know someone is trying to say something with those banners, but by reading this, i now know they posted them without permission.
    so, moral of my little entry: i really just wanted to THANK those of you who take the time to help keep this area clean, and safe.

  27. bh4j – you say you don’t want someone’s “media campaign” crammed down your throat, and demand that anyone who wants to make a positive social/political statement like this one must get the permission of the building owner before doing so. Excuse me, but we get media campaigns crammed down our throats CONSTANTLY, and almost none of them hold a real message like this one. And guess who does the cramming? PROPERTY OWNERS who want to use their property to make more money, so they put up a sign or a billboard. There are plenty of people who want to be able to make a statement about the problems in their community, but lack the resources to do so in a meaningful way. Ask the building owner? I actually don’t think the building owner would have responded, and an important message would have gone unstated.

    Also, graffiti has been an important medium of self-expression and dissent for thousands of years. I don’t think you’re going to be able to wipe it out with your little nagging crusade. Posters like these ARE different from gang tags, but apparently you’re too closed-minded to see it.

  28. Dude/ette, ***right/wrong about the actual message aside***, the point is that the property OWNERS get to decide what sign or billboard gets “crammed down your throat”. The OWNER, not you or someone else who didn’t work to make the money to pay the cost of the building.

  29. Yeah, I’m sure everyone who owns a building and/or property around here “worked” to make the money to buy it. Especially if being born into the right family counts as work. I’m not talking about advertising within a building also. I’m talking about the thousands of square acres of nonsense advertising that invades our public spaces – our sidewalks, streets, parks, etc. If I’m walking down a public sidewalk, I am going to be constantly assaulted with ads, whether I have given permission for that to happen or not. I think that’s stupid, but I understand why it’s allowed and I’m not really asking for it to stop.

    Getting back to the topic of the post, I don’t think people of simple means with legitimate things to say need to get permission from the landed gentry to speak their mind and share their thoughts with the community. If building owners have the right to display their 4×6 foot cigarette ads on their Shell station, then those of us who don’t own anything have the right to get our free expression any way we can. Our form of expression may be fleeting, erased, torn down or painted over in days or hours, but at least it means something.

  30. I am pretty disappointed and baffled as to why someone would think the posters are defaming the building. I have driven by these posters many times now for quite a long period of time and every time I am moved by them and think they send a powerful message. As a matter of fact, when I am sitting at that red light, the song “Imagine” by John Lennon runs through my head. Given that the posters have been up for a long time, I believe that it is the responsibility of the owners to tear them down. I do not see them as sending any kind of media propaganda or supporting any organizations. They simply support peace. Perhaps, bonghits4jesus, you should redirect your aggression for these posters toward weeding and picking up garbage. Also, volunteerism should be about being humble and selfless. By lashing out at people who might or might not volunteer and question whether or not they do volunteer does not inspire me one bit to go out and volunteer or help you weed. Besides, I can never imagine being passionate about weeding so much. They grow back and cannot understand why you believe your volunteerism triumphs the message of these posters or anyone else who does not volunteer. I am inspired by people who smile and are friendly regardless of whether they volunteer or not, and I am inspired by these posters.

  31. I just drove by there. There is no more Imagine. What is left is some smudgy windows, which I admit, sucks for the owners or the people that have to clean it up. I do see the point that it is a form of vandalism, but I think the building needed some color anyhow. Without the posters, it is a pretty depressing sight. And yes, there are a lot of weeds growing all over it.

  32. if you used the poll feature, my guess from the comments is that folks would overwhelmingly favor this sign, although I think that just makes bonghits’ day since he seems to love being the contrarian.

    bh4j, in the future, we’d love to have you on the Central District Neighborhood Assoc’s dedicated clean up days or the work the folks on 24th ave do. power in numbers.

    also, how did the property owner respond to your request to clean up the long-standing vandalism and gang graffiti on the property?

  33. Thanks to everyone for sounding off…this stream has been hilarious. Sorry for stirring the settling pot but aren’t bong hits illegal?

  34. I love the idea of the “THUGS NOT WELCOME” sign.

    Can we get a neighborhood art project to hand them out to all business, gas station, parks, and bus stops?

  35. bh4j (“bong hits for jesus”?? wtf?):
    No damage, no real problem.
    You call it “vandalism”, act self-righteous, assume your personal standards are everyone’s standards, and use quotes to cast aspersions on bona fide activists. Yet you take offense when people appear to sound ‘sarcastic’ to you. Get down with some objectivity and honest self-reflection, it’ll do you well with neighborhood and personal relations.

    Oh, and stop smoking so much pot, you might be able to relax a little and not be so angry.

    Also: “Private property rights are fundamental rights that predate the right to free speech.”
    Um. No they aren’t. If anything free speech comes first.

    Read some Ambrose Bierce:

    LAND, n.
    A part of the earth’s surface, considered as property. The theory that land is property subject to private ownership and control is the foundation of modern society, and is eminently worthy of the superstructure. Carried to its logical conclusion, it means that some have the right to prevent others from living; for the right to own implies the right exclusively to occupy; and in fact laws of trespass are enacted wherever property in land is recognized. It follows that if the whole area of terra firma is owned by A, B and C, there will be no place for D, E, F and G to be born, or, born as trespassers, to exist.


  36. Vandalism is defined by the letter of the law, not a personal opinion.

    Pot is a downer, it does make people relax.

    “nor shall any person… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

    This is from the US Constitution which was ratified before the Bill of Rights. When Col. George Mason proposed individual rights (Bill of Rights) be added to the Constitution they were voted down. Because of the absense of individual rights he refused to sign the document. Thomas Jefferson while is Paris was given much of the credit for urging the passage of the Bill of Rights but it was Mason who intially drafted (as the Virginia Declaration of Rights)and intially pushed for individual rights which were widely adopted and became the Bill of Rights. Property rights came before free speech rights. So if people want to say bh4j is being petty, we can very easily conclude these bills are completely insignificant compared to the protests of Mason.

    It’s not the message but the act that is the problem and it is certainly not the responsibility of the property owner to clean up any type of vandalism.

  37. thanks for the article- wanted to voice my support of your analysis. Regardless of the message, this is vandalism.

  38. Yes, because that’s what the troubled youth of the CD need, more weed. Hmmmm, brilliant idea except for one problem: they already have it. Tons of it. I see and smell it all the time with young kids puffing away. Doe not seem to have made them any less prone to thuggish behavior.

    But I think it’s great a bunch of well off, white liberal art college grads want to come to the CD and tell all these working class families that weed will help their kids in life. Bravo. Brilliant.

  39. ummm, i don’t think this was pro-marijuana advocacy. i think they meant, “grow something positive” vs “guns”. just so happens the guy opposing their unsanctioned statement calls himself, “Bong Hits for Jesus”

  40. Very lame arguement against the posters….and if i knew where to get some, i’d put them BACK UP!

    Of all the things to sound off about, this is the lowest priority. I live with in 1 block of that place and bike/walk/commute through that intersection constantly. those posters were the only positive thing about that storefront since the tragedy.

    what is criminal is keeping it vacant. rent it out, sell it, or develop it. it is blight right now. and a constant, not-so-subtle reminder of violence and death. that’s the reason the posters were poignant – if it was a vibrant business, guess what – now posters….

    looking forward to your next rant about a real topic.

  41. I’d just like to point out that it would have been perfectly legal for them to poster all of the utility poles in the area, including the ones in front of the old Cheesesteak place. You don’t need permission from anyone to post on a pole in the public right of way.

    Also, Jeff, Bonghits4jesus’ screen name is most likely a reference to the Morse v. Frederick supreme court case. Critical failure on your pop-culture roll there.

  42. One question….. Did the owners of the property actually disapprove of those posters.

  43. …and it’s not as if the property owners at 23rd/Union, save the SE corner with the “cop shop” and liquor store, put much effort into maintaining their property in the first place. Why does the neighborhood wind up doing street cleanups and weeding and other things? And yes, I have participated in my share of such events – and the answer to my question is, at least in some part, because the property owners don’t do so.

    I guess my take on the original posting would be, sure, they didn’t get permission (the fact they asked in the first place is fascinating to me) but I’m curious if the property owner would even have known the signs were there without the phone call? How involved are they in the neighborhood?

  44. Actually, at least in Seattle, yes it is. You can thank Mark Sidran for that one, but property owners *are* responsible for cleaning up graffiti.

  45. the culturejammers could have used the sidewalk or the utility poles, but chose not to. Was it graffiti? Sure, sorta. Was it vandalism? yes, SPD could charge you for it. Was it welcomed even though illegal and rude to the business owner: if this forum is any indicator, we’re split. Seems like a cry out for public art, in my opinion.

    And LackThereof: Did you just say ‘Crit Failure on your roll?’ You sir/ma’am receive +125 XP for the sly D&D reference.