“The billboards are intended to bring attention to both the monument and the need for the community to address racism,” said a press release from Reconcile Sylva, the group that paid for the billboards.
Jackson County commissioners voted 4-1 on Aug. 4 to keep the statue in place — with modifications to remove pro-Confederate words and imagery from the pedestal — but in a statement issued the night of the vote Reconcile Sylva promised, “This isn’t the beginning or the end.”
The two-panel display consists of mostly white lettering on a black background. The first panel reads, “Dear Community, have you talked to your children about racism? Reconcile Sylva Now,” while the second says, “Black Lives Matter. Confederate Statues Don’t.” Reconcile Sylva has the space leased for one month thanks to a donation one of its members made to cover the $950 cost.
Located next to A-1 Storage on U.S. 441, the billboards will be easily visible to anyone traveling between Sylva and Franklin, but Reconcile Sylva had originally planned to locate the display much closer to the Confederate statue in question — the group wanted to put the billboards up next to the American Legion Post 104 at Mark Watson Park, just west of the courthouse hill where the statue is located.
“We weren’t able to go with our original plan because the county wouldn’t approve all of the artwork, so we actually ended up going with a more expensive billboard,” said Reconcile Sylva member Natalie Newman, adding that under the original plan the billboards would have stayed up for about four months.
The county’s part in the billboard issue was seemingly a surprise to everyone, including to County Manager Don Adams. When Newman initially approached him about the matter, he said, he was not even aware that the county had any involvement with the billboards in question.
It turned out, however, that the county leases the space to Allison Outdoor Advertising under an agreement dated Feb. 2, 1976. The agreement was for an initial term of five years and had apparently continued on a year-to-year basis ever afterward, with Allison paying the county just $50 per year for the lease. The lease is one of two such agreements the county has with Allison. The other, newer agreement is for a billboard along U.S. 441 about 3 miles north of the space Reconcile Sylva ended up leasing, on the property where the county’s Emergency Management Office is located. Allison pays the county $2,200 per year for that space.
At issue was a provision continued in the lease governing the downtown location.
“Allison shall not allow third parties to use the billboard for political ads or issues, or for promotion of subjects which are politically sensitive or which might tend to imply the County of Jackson has taken a position in regards to a political matter,” the provision reads.
When Reconcile Sylva first approached Allison about renting the space, the company referred to that provision and denied the request. At that point, Newman reached out to Adams via email asking for the county to issue a variance and allow the ad, stating that the ad should be allowed as it does not make reference to “any political person or idea.”
Adams wrote back that this was the first time such an issue had been brought to his attention, but as best he could tell, “your proposed artwork does address sensitive issues that our community is currently debating and takes a clear position regarding the statue.”
“At this time it seems that Allison Outdoor Advertising has appropriately managed the billboards,” Adams wrote. “The current agreement does not address a variance process. Since the billboards have been appropriately managed in accordance with the agreement, I do not have an avenue to proceed forward.”
Newman said she was surprised by the response.
“I assumed they would come back and say, fine.’ Our artwork is not vulgar. It is not a political issue. It is a nonpartisan human issue,” she said.
Newman then had a follow-up conversation with Allison about whether Reconcile Sylva could instead display only one billboard, to read, “Dear Sylva, have you talked to your child about racism?” and emailed Adams again to ask what specific aspects of the originally proposed language violated the lease agreement.
“We kind of would like to understand what part of the artwork the county takes issue with. Is it the Confederate Statue? Is it the racism part? Just trying to understand,” Newman wrote.
Adams then replied with an email that also copied Jackson County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan, Jeff Bryson of Allison, County Attorney Heather Baker and Reconcile Sylva member Suzanne Saucier. In that message, he specified that his original statement agreeing with Allison’s handling of the situation was based on looking at the two proposed billboards as a whole but that he sees nothing wrong with the second request.
“There is nothing from Jackson County or our agreement with Allison Outdoor Advertising that would prevent the words “Dear Sylva, Have you talked to your child about racism?” from being put onto the billboard,” he wrote.
Getting out of the billboard business
Commissioners discussed the issue during a work session held Tuesday, Aug. 11, with Adams saying at multiple points that the situation had made him extremely uncomfortable.
“This is a horrible position for any government official to be put in because we’re talking about speech, and at no point was I going to be perceived as someone who denied someone’s ability to send out messages about talking to your family about racism,” he told the board.
Baker told the board that case law backs up a government’s ability to restrict messages on billboards because in that situation the government is conducting commerce, not county business, so legally it is not a public forum.
“However, as Don (Adams) mentioned, we don’t like being in the situation where it gets back to us to have to make the decision,” she said. “That’s very awkward and very uncomfortable even though it may be allowed.”
Adams recommended that the board take one of two actions. Either it should update the lease so as to prevent county staff from being involved in further discussion about content, or it should get out of the billboard business altogether.
McMahan initially said he’d prefer to renegotiate the lease with Allison to remove the provision regulating the types of messages that can appear on the billboard, and to up the rental fee substantially from the $50 per year agreed to in 1976.
However, other commissioners leaned toward terminating leases for both the American Legion and U.S. 441 locations altogether.
“If we keep the lease in there, is the county more or less at risk for somebody bringing a lawsuit forward on the first amendment versus if the clause is not there?” asked Commissioner Ron Mau.
“I think you’d run into issues either way,” said Baker.
“So, what do we want to do?” asked McMahan.
“If you leave it on county property, even if Allison’s is managing it, it’s still going to always be the perception of the county, and it’s going to be a reflection on the county,” said Commissioner Mickey Luker. “If it’s on our property, let’s just eliminate it.”
McMahan then took a straw poll of the other commissioners, all of whom affirmed they’d like to see the billboards go. A vote during a regular meeting will be required to make an official decision. The lease agreement requires six months’ notice prior to termination.