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Billboards become free-speech venue of choice in Newark

By The Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. — Got a beef with Newark? Rent a billboard and broadcast it to the world, or at least to the thousands of commuters who creep through the city each weekday.

In recent months, the outlet of choice in New Jersey's largest city has become an open-air chat room, with several outdoor signs paid for by the local teachers union protesting Newark's high murder rate and others criticizing that same union.

The developer of a downtown apartment building has entered the fray by leasing a billboard solely to get rid of the current ad that screams to potential renters: "HELP WANTED. Stop The Killings In Newark Now!"

Arthur Stern, executive director of Cogswell Realty, said he has rented the space for the rest of the year and plans to replace the "Help wanted" ad with his company's ad.

"It's not going to stop the violence, it's not going to bring any more attention to the violence," Stern said. "It's not like people were ignoring the issue here. It accomplishes nothing except to bring revenue to the company that leased (the billboard) to them."

Joe Del Grosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union, wouldn't say how much the "Help wanted" signs cost.

Stern is not alone in his critique of the "Help wanted" billboards. Newark Mayor Cory Booker has criticized them for promoting a negative image of Newark. While he has opted to distance himself from public debate on the issue, spokeswoman Lupe Todd had a message for the teachers union.

"While it's a wonderful exercise in free speech, we have some serious issues that require serious, constructive, thoughtful ideas and initiatives," Todd said. "If people have money that they're willing to spend in Newark, we welcome them to spend money on helping us and our students."

Ignoring the messages is difficult in a city in which the term "rush hour" is a cruel misnomer and paralyzing gridlock is the everyday norm. While one of the signs funded by the teachers union overlooks Route 21 — the city's primary north-south artery — so does a competing message that is the work of the Center for Union Facts, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

The group's billboard accuses the teachers union of "Protecting Bad Teachers," "Discouraging Good Teachers" and "Failing Our Kids," with one side of the billboard stamped with a large, scarlet 'F.'

Richard Berman, the center's executive director, said the fact that his group's campaign was launched a little more than a month after the teachers union's billboards went up was a coincidence — a claim Del Grosso has contested.

"We'd been researching this. We were prepared to put that up some time ago but were holding off because of the availability of billboards," Berman said. "When the union launched their campaign about crime, I was a little miffed. I didn't want it to appear to be an answer to their campaign, but I also didn't want to be paralyzed by it."

Del Grosso, meanwhile, has become an overnight international celebrity, appearing on CNN and fielding interview requests from numerous outlets including a French newspaper and a German television network. He says he has received e-mails from around the country supporting his actions and has renewed the lease on the billboards for "another few months."

"Overall, I think people understand the message is sincere and that it's a message asking for help, because the killings in Newark impinge on the quality of life for everyone," he said.

By the city's count, there were 106 murders in Newark in 2006, the first time in 11 years the number had topped 100. There have been 24 murders in 2007, the most recent being two men who were shot during an argument at a bar on March 28.

Using billboards for purposes other than touting roadside lodging or dining is far from new.

In recent years, billboards have been used effectively as wanted posters for criminal suspects. And in one well-publicized case, a southern New Jersey developer rented sign space near the Delaware Memorial Bridge in 2005 after the state Department of Environmental Protection barred him from adding a truck stop on property where he had already built a hotel and a Cracker Barrel restaurant.

The sign read: "Welcome to New Jersey. A horrible place to do business. DEP nightmare state."


Billboard law violates free speech, Oregon high court says

'The state may not enact restrictions that focus on the content of the speech, and this restriction does just that,' justices' ruling says of state law. 03.24.06

Digital billboards light up debate over advertising limits
Minnesota city pulls plug on company's signs, sparking court fight that local governments, advertising industry alike are watching. 02.23.07

Bidet business's bare-buttocks billboards barred from building
New York judge grants temporary restraining order at request of pastor of Times Square Church that is housed in same theater district building. 07.10.07


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