Critics say Progs’ actions inhibit free speech
by Aubrey Weaver, Community News Service
Out on her daily walk last year, Olivia Taylor noticed a sticker-covered street sign at the corner of Ethan Allen Parkway and North Avenue in Burlington’s New North End. In black typed text on each sticker were phrases that, to her, clearly targeted transgender people.
One said no one is ever “‘born into the wrong body.’” Another, in an apparent criticism of gender-affirming health care, called treatment “lifelong medical dependency” and “a business model.”
“I would just kind of scrape the stickers and keep walking,” said Taylor, a Burlington resident who ran for city council last year as a Progressive Party–endorsed independent and serves on her ward’s Neighborhood Planning Assembly steering committee. “But I started realizing that I was seeing more and more of them.”
Taylor met up with other members of the community to talk about what they had noticed.
“We all wanted to do something,” said Taylor. “I felt really frustrated the city wasn’t able to do anything.”
So she joined others in an informal campaign to take the stickers down. A small group of folks made a series of weekly trips around the New North End this past winter to remove the stickers — often found on signs or poles — and the effort is set to pick back up this summer. “I got to know people in my community who I’ve never met before and who also care,” Taylor said, adding, “The majority of our community really does care about removing them.”
The group launched a GoFundMe to buy thousands of stickers supporting trans people — and distribute them to be placed over the others — and raised more than $900 last summer.
Burlington city councilors unanimously adopted a resolution in March that, among other things, asked a council committee to look at changes to Burlington’s graffiti ordinance to deal with “graffiti that spreads hateful and harmful messages.” Residents can currently report graffiti of any kind through the city’s SeeClickFix site.
A heated public comment session preceded the vote March 13, though most who spoke supported the resolution, including Taylor, who said in an interview that she helped Councillor Joe McGee, P-Ward 3, write it.
At that public forum, Burlington GOP chair Christopher-Aaron Felker spoke in favor of the “stickering campaign.”
“We do not censor or criminalize speech in this nation because it offends,” said Felker.
Felker added: “Stickering campaigns are common forms of free and political speech. We didn’t invent stickering campaigns — we learned them from you all.”
He said movements like Black Lives Matter and the Vermont AFL-CIO also use stickers in their public messaging and that “if the city wishes to crack down on graffiti, they can crack down on everyone, but they won’t and we are not backing down.”
Community News Service reached out to Felker and Reduxx, a “biological feminist” news organization mentioned on some of the stickers, for comment, but neither responded.
Discussions on the issue have repeatedly raised questions about whether the stickers constitute protected speech. Vermont Rep. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, P/D-Chittenden 6, one of the organizers of the sticker GoFundMe, wants to look into gaps that exist between hate crime laws and what actions slip through the cracks of the law like these stickers.
Mulvaney-Stanak said in an interview that she has an intern researching this topic and wants to see changes in how the state records and responds to so-called “bias acts” that haven’t reached hate crime classification.
Some of that begins with monitoring, said Mulvaney-Stanak. “It’s hard for the attorney general’s office, which has a civil rights unit, to have a really accurate understanding of clusters of hate crimes and bias acts in parts of the state because there’s no requirement under state law (to report bias acts and hate crimes).”
Mulvaney-Stanak hopes to “make sure that we are just leveling up on a state level to make sure there’s consistency across the state of law enforcement and just towns themselves. And then we’re just not letting these things go.”
Mulvaney-Stanak pointed out two other anti-LGBTQ+ acts in the state recently: reports that Vergennes Union High School plans to host a vocally transphobic public speaker for a school event and an instance where a queer poet was accosted by protesters at a reading in Lyndonville’s public library.
Mulvaney-Stanak said some Vermonters “are really falling in line with all the (anti-LGBTQ+) rhetoric out there nationwide — those folks exist here and those are some of the folks putting the stickers up locally.”
Speaking about Republican politicians, Mulvaney-Stanak said, “It’s this hostile environment where they’re really creating all this fear and misinformation around parental rights and coming in at that angle, at least for young people … No one’s taking parental rights away. What we’re trying to do is save lives for kids who are in hostile home environments where, you know, their parents are just not accepting of who they are.”
Taylor, too, expressed concerns about the stickers adversely affecting young people. “I think the biggest thing is that they are showing up in front of playgrounds and schools,” she said. “Especially when children all over our country are being punished for wanting gender-affirming care … It’s really concerning that this seems to be specifically targeting children.”
Taylor said she hasn’t been able to keep up with the weekly cleanups due to family complications but is committing to monthly cleanup walks, the next being July 2.
“It’s really easy when I’m walking alone to get really angry and frustrated with the amount of stickers,” said Taylor, “but one of the things that makes me really hopeful is that the stickers are never up for very long without being scratched or crossed out by someone in the community.”