As far back as anyone can remember, the city of New Orleans has offered up government-owned lampposts to organizations promoting this or that feel-good, hometown cause. So it’s entirely commonplace to drive down the street and see an array of banners touting a festival, a landmark school, hospital or church.
The practice amounts to civic boosterism at its most basic and usually its most noncontroversial. Or it used to, anyway.
That all changed recently when banners picturing a fetus appeared over stately St. Charles Avenue with the message, “Give her life a chance!” To say that this takes the practice into new territory is an understatement, according to many on the other side of the divisive abortion wars from the banners’ sponsors, Louisiana Right to Life Federation and New Orleans Right to Life.
The groups secured the prime public real estate under a policy allowing banners that create “community awareness” to be displayed on lampposts, at no cost to the sponsor other than the price of producing and hanging the flags. The policy does outlaw commercial advertising and direct political campaigning, though, and messages about a divisive political issue would certainly seem to fit that category.
Not according to its sponsors, though. They describe the message as educational, not political.
And more importantly, not according to the city under existing policy, now under review as a result of an outcry and several petition drives opposing the banners’ presence. The controversy comes at a particularly heated moment, with extreme rhetoric on the subject bleeding into the presidential campaign and putting federal funding for health care provided through Planned Parenthood at risk. Some local pro-abortion rights activists have cast the banners as chilling to women considering exercising their rights.
One thing city officials should consider as they decide what do next is the fact that allowing such banners could be read as picking sides. Private property is one thing, but signs that appear on city property carry the suggestion of a government-endorsed message. It blurs the line between free and official speech.
In this case, it amounts to the city appearing to endorse the idea that abortion should be illegal, despite the fact that it’s not. And it suggests there’s some sort of consensus among its citizens, which is certainly not the case.
Consider all the controversy over the construction of the new Planned Parenthood facility on Claiborne Avenue, which has been subject to protests but has the support of many residents and several members of the City Council.
Council members Susan Guidry, LaToya Cantrell and Stacy Head are also among the banners’ critics and have called on the administration to re-examine the practice. Guidry, whose district includes the area where the banners hang, said they give the false impression that the city “condones” their sentiment. She also called for a change in policy so that no such banners are posted in the future.
Head made a somewhat farfetched comparison to the recent fight over whether to remove four Confederate and white supremacist monuments, but she actually has something of a point: By allowing certain images to appear on public property, the city seems to sanction them, whether it means to or not.
Ironically, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who led the fight to take down the monuments (which Head opposed), tends to be somewhat gun-shy when it comes to social issues. He wasn’t among the first wave of mayors to embrace full legalization of same-sex marriage, and he’s kept his distance from the fight over the new Planned Parenthood facility, which will offer abortions and other health services.
He doesn’t seem eager to get involved here either, but he doesn’t have much of a choice. In letting the banners fly in the first place, the city already has implicitly taken sides. Now’s the time to clarify what it really wants to say — and what it doesn’t.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.