Can One Billboard Owner Threaten Tennessee’s Beauty?

In Much Ado by Catherine Landisleave a COMMENT

I was only 9 when the Highway Beautification Act passed in 1965 but I remember it—not because I was some 4th grade public policy nut, but because the woman who championed it had such a pretty name. Lady Bird. The law itself may not have fascinated me as much as that name, nor can I claim to have thought much about billboards, public spaces, or the common good, but I grew up in an outdoors-loving family and spent half my childhood playing in the woods, so I understood natural beauty. When a cherished swath of farmland was sacrificed for a new freeway, I remember grieving as if I’d lost a friend. Had that freeway been littered by jostling billboards, the loss would have been even harder. But it wasn’t. Thanks to the Highway Beautification Act.

We are coming close to gutting Lady Bird’s vision of a thriving country proud of its beautiful public spaces with a lawsuit brought by Memphis billboard owner William Thomas against the state. To understand the basis of his argument requires a leap into the twilight zone. Here goes: Specific regulations govern off-premise signs (for instance, a McDonald’s billboard not on McDonald’s property). But to know whether a sign is off-premise, you have to read it. In his lawsuit, Thomas is claiming that the very act of reading the sign turns it into content, so regulations based on location cannot apply. Regulating content violates free speech. Sound surreal? Yes, but this is no joke.

The suit is more complicated, involving Supreme Court rulings and technical distinctions between various types of signs, but in essence Thomas is attempting to demolish both state and federal Highway Beautification Act protections in the name of “free speech.” He has help. The Beacon Center of Tennessee, a libertarian group with Koch Brothers ties and a history of helping to defeat such “freedom killers” as Insure Tennessee, filed an amicus brief on behalf of Thomas. Scenic Tennessee and Scenic Knoxville, joined by multiple state and national organizations, filed amici brief in response. To our credit, the city of Knoxville was the only city to join, adding our East Tennessee voices to the cause of keeping Tennessee beautiful.

An advisory jury unanimously ruled in September against Thomas, but the final decision is up to U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla. A ruling for the plaintiff could set a precedent nationwide, allowing for unbridled proliferation of billboards on federal roads, and that’s not just interstates. It’s Kingston Pike, Magnolia Avenue, Asheville Highway, Rutledge Pike, Chapman Highway, Clinton Highway, any many more.

Behind the lawsuit is the belief that sign regulations are anti-business. Just the opposite, says Joyce Feld, president of Scenic Knoxville.

“When you allow sign clutter and tawdry ugliness to populate your city, that’s anti-business. Because that’s not where people want to be,” Feld says. “That’s not where people want to live, shop, and play. They’re looking for beauty. That’s what soothes their soul. Ultimately, if you create a beautiful city, you’ll draw in high-quality commercial investment.”

Still, it remains popular these days, especially here in Tennessee, to characterize government regulations as tyranny. Until the day you might need one or two to protect you and your family—like when Mr. Hog Farmer wants to move in next door with his containment pond of feces.

These same don’t-tread-on-me champions show their hypocritical stripes when they advocate for the “broken windows” theory of urban policing, suggesting that crackdowns on small crimes such as littering and vandalism create an environment that decreases serious crime. It also just happens to encourage stop-and-frisk, a favorite law-enforcement technique to control communities of color. So in one context, the litterers are criminals; in another they are freedom fighters?

While the motivation for “broken windows” is dubious, the idea that beautiful spaces can make people feel better is not. Want to see how fast unrestrained billboard clutter could suck the soul from a city? In the Libertarian dream world, billboard owners like Thomas can shield themselves in gated neighborhoods protected by regulations—oops, I mean “neighborhood covenants”—while the rest of us chumps are left with their litter.

Public spaces. The common good. I’m often struck by what happens on a crowded subway in a busy city when the train stops and more people get on than off. People make room. They scrunch up, turn sideways, draw bags closer, move hands from poles to overhead rungs. They make themselves smaller. Kinder. They accommodate for the sake of the common good. Taking up more space, two seats instead of one, would be considered rude. We don’t have subways in Tennessee but we have kindergartens. And what do we expect from our 5-year-olds when the plate of cookies is passed around? Thomas and his friends at the Beacon Center want to live in a world where they get all the cookies.

And they might get their wish. Our next president would fail the kindergarten cookie test but he’ll be appointing federal judges.

The common good doesn’t mean just taking care of our own. It means understanding basic ecology. That we are dependent on plants and insects, on soil that grows our food, harvested by tractors made by somebody with government loans, transported on government roads to tax-subsidized supermarkets. It means understanding that polluting air and water is the same thing as stealing. Same for stealing the beauty of our shared natural world with unregulated clutter.

“Ugliness is so grim,” Lady Bird Johnson once said. “A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lessen tensions.”

She believed that beauty can improve our mental health and she worked to make the United States a more beautiful place. Why shouldn’t we?

With Much Ado, Catherine Landis examines how political decisions and social trends affect the lives of the people around her. She is particularly interested in issues concerning feminism, civil rights, education, the environment, and immigration reform. A former newspaper reporter, she has published two novels, Some Days There’s Pie (St. Martin’s Press) and Harvest (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). She lives in Knoxville.

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