Eagle-Tribune April 23, 2017 By Kiera Blessing
Members Would ‘Scrutinize’ Ads Proposed for City
METHUEN, MA – At least two city councilors are backing a proposal for a committee to oversee what advertisements appear on billboards.
Councilor Ron Marsan suggested creating the committee during the council’s Tuesday meeting, after the councilors tabled a discussion about a proposed electronic billboard atop an existing pole. Marsan specifically noted the billboard at the corner of Pleasant Valley and Merrimack streets, which currently displays an add for a smartphone application called “weedmaps,” referring to marijuana.
“I just don’t like that we have these billboards and they can place anything they want on them at this point and I don’t think that’s right,” Marsan told The Eagle-Tribune Thursday. During the meeting, he noted that “I have to read that every day. Kids have to read it.”
But City Solicitor Richard D’Agostino said the council and the committee, if created, would have to walk a narrow line so as not to violate advertisers’ First Amendment rights. Efforts to control freedom of expression have been struck down by the Supreme Court in the past as an infringement on the right to free speech.
“We have to narrowly focus on how we will address the public safety issues, and not (attempt) to limit or regulate what someone could say, but (rather) where the city’s interest and the public’s interest override the First Amendment interest of the expressionist, in this case, the billboard operator,” D’Agostino said. “I’m not saying we can’t do it – we’d have to tread very cautiously and very narrowly in our regulation.”
Marsan said he “understand(s) we can’t take down what’s there – that’s not my intent.”
Instead, he said hopes the committee can act as a catalyst for “better discussion” about what appears on the billboards across the city.
“Everybody that has a billboard in the city has to come before a committee and tell us what they want to put on them,” he suggested at the meeting. “Then we at least scrutinize what goes on it. We can’t say yes or no. People have rights – we have to follow the law. But if they come before us, maybe we have some say and if we start setting precedent maybe they’ll consider what they even applied for.”
Councilor James Jajuga told The Eagle-Tribune Thursday that he, too, would like to see the creation of a billboard committee that could act as “a buffer” to what kind of ads appear in Methuen.
“My sense is that, if there was this committee created…I think that that would sort of act as a check and balance,” he said. “The companies would think, ‘Wait a minute, there’s going to be scrutiny here.’
“Even if it’s a fine line, it may tip in favor of the citizenry.”
Residents faced a similar dilemma across the border in Plaistow, New Hampshire, last year when an electronic sign outside Mortgage Specialists, a business on the Haverhill line, displayed a profane word in reference to a politician.
Steve Ranlett, a Plaistow selectman, said he had received complaints but his hands were tied. “Unfortunately, (the sign owner) has a First Amendment right to post whatever he wants and there’s nothing that the town of Plaistow or anybody can do.”
John M. Greabe, a law professor at the University of New Hampshire who specializes in constitutional law, said at the time that the Mortgage Specialists sign “falls through the gaps” in a complicated legal gray area.
“When you’re talking about a situation where … he’s got the permission to have a sign, it’s harder,” Greabe said. “Commercial speech can be regulated … the problem is he’s talking about politics, he’s talking about what the heart of the First Amendment is supposed to be about.
“If you choose words, it’s part of the message,” he said. “I don’t want to say you can’t, but it’s just tough to regulate on the basis of content.”
Methuen might not face such challenges regulating the ads in town, since they are commercial speech.
“You can’t ban them from your community. You have to accommodate them, but you can regulate how you accommodate them,” said D’Agostino during the council meeting. He used adult stores as an example – municipalities can’t ban them, but they can use zoning laws to restrict where they can do business.
“It’s not that it’s impossible to do, but if we embark on saying we’re going to restrict the content, we are going to fail at the outset,” D’Agostino said.
Marsan said he’s discussed the committee idea with D’Agostino to determine its legal logistics. He said he anticipates making a formal proposal to create a committee in the near future.
“I don’t know if I can regulate, but I’d like to at least know what’s coming, and we’d be able to address it there,” Marsan said.