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Freedom to Chalk

December 23, 2012

Diane Peel and her weapon of choice: Chalk. Is the issue about what you say? Or about how you say it? Photo: Christopher Roy

NEWPORT CITY – Sometimes writing on city sidewalks isn't child’s play. That's the message the court sent Diane Peel, Jack Rogers and Tom Farrow when it ordered them to pay a fine of $50 apiece for doing just that.
Friday morning, Lamoille County Assistant Judge Karen Bradley handed down the fines.
During an interview last summer, Peel said she wrote things like: “Big Corporations don’t care about your health, buy local,” “Support Community Gardens,” “It’s your town, take control,” and “What would you like to see on Main Street?” with an arrow pointing to an empty storefront.
Farrow said he wrote things like “God is Love” and “You have to have a membership card to get inside,” which is a quote from the song "Signs." He also drew a symbol from the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."
Rogers wrote things like “God lives here,” “Have a good day,” “Be at peace,” and “Take care of the city.” He also wrote 4:20, which is a marijuana usage code, and "Free Pot," promoting marijuana, because he feels the government should legalize marijuana/cannabis.
In court, Newport City Police Officer Royce Lancaster said the defendants wrote on 50 or so blocks of cement. The writings, said Lancaster, were not overly aggressive.
Police discovered that Rogers was one of the chalk writers and issued him a disorderly conduct ticket. After hearing about the citation, Peel and Farrow went to the police station to ask that they get cited as well. Lancaster didn’t want to put someone through district court for putting chalk on the sidewalk.
“We felt it was a disturbance,” said Lancaster. “The store owners were upset about the chalking.”
Lancaster said rain would have washed the markings away, but City Manager John Ward, Jr. was upset and had the public works department clean the sidewalk. Instead of billing the defendants for the time it took city employees to clean the chalking, Lancaster issued the disorderly conduct ticket.
On the witness stand, Peel said she used washable sidewalk chalk. She said nothing in the ordinance makes her believe that writing in chalk is a violation. Peel said that a couple weeks after the incident, a child wrote “I love Newport” on a sidewalk on Prospect Street. On Oct. 29, others wrote on the sidewalk on Coventry Street. Peel doesn’t know if any of those individuals received tickets for their acts.
Peel, who is a member of the NEK 99 percent, said the group asked the Newport City Council and the Newport City Renaissance Corporation for an easily accessible public bulletin board.
“In general they seemed to think it was a good idea, but it’s not likely to happen anytime soon,” said Peel. The remark was her assumption. “The city council deferred it to the Renaissance Corporation. The design committee is involved with that, but they don’t have any real way to make anything happen.”
Lancaster asked Peel if she considered using the newspaper as her public forum.
“The newspaper is dependent upon the whim or will of the editor of the newspaper to publish material,” said Peel. “It is not an open public forum where anyone can post it to them; there is a gatekeeper.”
Buying newspaper space, like an advertisement, excludes people who can’t afford it, Peel said. She said that chalking is a good way to express opinions and encourage public debate.
Rogers admitted being involved in the chalking. His reasoning was to encourage people to shop locally and to beautify the city in an area that has numerous vacant store fronts.
“We didn’t do anything indecent, we weren’t bothering anybody,” said Rogers. He said the group previously did the same project a month or so earlier on the opposite side of the street. “Mr. Ward had e-mailed to Diane that probably wasn’t the best way to go about getting your message across, but he never said anything about statutes or ordinances that we’d be arrested. We felt it was okay to do it.”
“I don’t know if you’ll like what I have to say,” said Farrow in court, when asked by attorney Barry Kade if he had anything to say. He said that he didn’t know that his actions would be a violation. “I know people write hopscotch on the street all the time.”
Farrow believes he received a citation because the state is offended by free speech, particularly religious sayings, song lyrics and speaking out for marijuana rights.
“I feel like we live in a world that’s really twisted,” said Farrow. “It’s not fair to poor people.”
During her testimony, store owner Debi Mead, who complained to Ward about the chalking, called the incident “a travesty.” The chalking, said Mead, detracts from what many are trying to portray. The writings, said Mead, were ramblings. The downtown merchants are individual business owners and not corporate America and the writings were disrespectful and rude.
Lancaster indicated that others beside Meed also complained about the chalking.

 

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