Carthage officials are looking into ways the city might be able to ban offensive billboard advertising in the wake of an “Abortion is a blessing” billboard from the Lilith Fund.
Proposals, brought to the commission Monday by Kooter Romero and discussed among commissioners, include a permitting process, creating an advertising review board or banning billboards altogether.
Commissioners were unclear what all, if anything, would be allowed constitutionally, but were interested in the idea; commissioners said they’d direct City Attorney Collin Underwood to speak with the Texas Municipal League to get a legal view of the situation.
Mayor Lin Joffrion pointed to the fact that cigarette advertising is illegal because cigarettes kill and said the idea of allowing abortion advertising at the same time didn’t sync with him. But he also said everything they had been told so far was that the city couldn’t regulate content.
“We’re just trying to be good stewards of the city — at the same time, I was just as offended by that as you were,” Joffrion told Romero.
Romero lives outside of Carthage but owns several homes in the city limits. He told commissioners Monday he did not want to see similar billboards from the Lilith Fund or others in the future.
“That one struck me, and it hit me hard,” he said. “Abortions are not a blessing, and I know all of y’all feel the same way I do.”
Romero proposed several options for an ordinance, and told city officials that Center has an existing ordinance that regulates billboard advertising — something that has allowed them to ban billboards that contain nudity or advertising from novelty stores.
Romero also said the city could look at only allowing billboard advertising from local businesses, banning religious ads or simply prohibit all billboards within the city limits.
“I know (not) messing with the freedom of speech is going to be difficult, but I don’t see it too far out of reach for this city... that we can’t come up with some kind of middle ground to reach to where we can’t put up signs like what we had a month ago,” he said. “I know it caught us all by surprise.”
The First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause has generally been found to apply to what’s known as “protected speech” — political and ideological speech especially — among a number of forms of expression, including writing and political signs. “Unprotected speech” falls into categories like nudity, threats, defamation, obscenity, perjury and incitement of imminent lawless action, according to the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum Institute, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization that works to educate and raise awareness about the First Amendment.
Romero said the current lack of regulations mean anyone can put up anything, and he told commissioners he fears it’s going to get worse.
“For us to just sit on our hands I think would be a mistake because the next one’s coming, and I’m scared what it’s going to be,” he said.
Commissioners and Romero said the Lilith Fund’s billboard accomplished what the abortion fund wanted: “Their goal is to create chaos,” Commissioner Tate Barber said.
“I think it’s good that you’ve come to us with some solutions, some options that might work for us,” Commissioner Walta Cooke told Romero.