Less than three weeks after protecting BLM graffiti, VTrans eliminates anti-BLM roadway messages in same town. Free speech issue?
by Guy Page
July 16, 2020 – Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) highway workers on July 6 in Jamaica and nearby towns removed roadway graffiti saying “BLM is Racist.” Less than a month ago, Gov. Phil Scott and VTrans officials – after complaints that workers had removed pro-Black Lives Matter graffiti in the town of Jamaica – told highway workers to leave all roadway graffiti untouched unless dangerous to traffic, grotesque, or profane.
According to the Chester Telegraph, someone spraypainted “BLM is Racist” on the night of July 5-6 in three locations in the towns of South Londonderry and Jamaica. “By that afternoon, the message had been covered by pink spray paint and the following morning all three had been washed away by the Vermont Agency of Transportation,” the July 8 Telegraph said.
The VTrans on June 19 instructed employees to not remove murals, signs or graffiti in the highway right-of-way unless profane, grotesque or dangerous to traffic, according to two VTrans memos. It was a reversal of the longstanding policy of removing or painting over graffiti and other messaging. The policy change was made after guidance from the governor’s office, and was in response to a complaint from a pro-BLM protester whose chalk-written messages on the VT-30 bridge in Jamaica were erased in June. One message said “No Justice, No Peace,” and the other listed names of black people killed by police and others.
According to the July 10 Telegraph, Londonderry Town Clerk and House member Kelly Pajala “praised VTrans’ quick action to remove the graffiti.” The Londonderry school board chair warned that “racist intimidation has no place in Londonderry.”
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines profane as “serving to debase or defile what is holy; irreverent, obscene, vulgar.” It defines grotesque as “a style of decorative art characterized by fanciful or fantastic human and animal forms often interwoven with foliage or similar figures that may distort the natural into absurdity, ugliness, or caricature.” It is not clear how “BLM is racist” fits either definition.
Shortly before publication today, Vermont Daily emailed VTrans to explain why pro-BLM graffiti messaging is protected, but messaging critical of BLM is eliminated. VTrans is typically very forthcoming with requests for information, and any response will be published ASAP.
At his press conference today, GOP gubernatorial candidate John Klar says the State’s action suggests a point of view that “First Amendment freedom applies to one side, and not the other…..some say BLM is a racist, terrorist organization, some say it’s liberating.” The administration’s choice shows that “it does not understand the basic tenets of the Constitution.” Klar, a lawyer, cited the U.S. Supreme Court 1977 Skokie decision that held that even Nazis have the legal right to peacefully assemble and speak freely.
Pro-BLM roadway graffiti in Jamaica, Vermont. Photo Credit Vermont Agency of Transportation.