Overpass Light Brigade Is Challenging Free Speech Restrictions
One Victory, More Conflicts to Come?
Though the Austin Overpass Light Brigade won the right to hold lighted signs over a highway once, it can expect further encounters with police.
Last Monday, I attended the Austin Overpass Light Brigade’s fourth gathering. As previously reported on Firedoglake, the group had been shut down by police at its previous two attempts. The message on election eve was DO MORE THAN VOTE, and occupiers came prepared for police interference.
First, they modified their signs to be wearable like over-sized necklaces. Next, they distributed misinformation — sharing a false start location and start time at an overpass where they’d been shut down. The real location was spread by word of mouth, at the general assembly, and by people waiting at the fake start location to redirect real help. Activists stood on a part of an overpass over a grassy hill, further forestalling objections that they could drop their worn signs into traffic.
Police took the bait — a half dozen police cars again appeared at the advertised start location, and a dispatcher could be heard reading Occupy Austin’s @OAalerts feed over the police band. Occupiers held their sign at the new location for almost 45 minutes before police arrived, called by an employee with the Texas Department of Public Transportation. The TX DOT employee at the previous attempt would say only ‘no comment,’ but this one was quite talkative. Though he would not give his name, he first cursed at Nathan B, a young teenage volunteer with the Peaceful Streets Project then tried to grab Austin Chronicle photojournalist John Anderson’s notebook while insisting Anderson was breaking the law because media is required, he said, to wear safety vest.
Though we argued with the officer’s insistence that we leave the overpass, the Light Brigade regrouped on the grass by the off ramp while waiting for a phone call to bear fruit. The call was to Debbie Russell, activist with the Texas American Civil Liberties Union. Russell had previous experience negotiating with police to allow displays of banners and signs on highways as long as they aren’t physically attached. She called her contacts at the police. As we watched, more police cars arrived. Some officers looked angry. Then a supervisor arrived, the discussion continued, and all police left.
According to a Facebook post by Debbie Russell:
Yes–well I talked to [Chief Acevedo’s] assistant chief and he’s getting TXDot to provide what laws they think are in violation. The issue is the actual lumination of the sign, but according to how I’m reading the law (and how I think APD interprets it, but waiting for final word), such a sign is ok except if it impairs visibility/shines lights into people’s faces as they are driving. So I sent pics of our light brigade, others around the country, specs on the LED light strings – with a little science lesson on wattage/lumens, etc saying these couldn’t possibly be considered a public safety threat — at most they are 2-3x as bright as old fashioned xmas lights and the light is scattered/diffused — not directional. I’m waiting for them to take this to TXDot and circle back.
Though the future legal status of this action is uncertain, the Austin Overpass Light Brigade returned to the overpass. On November 5, thousands of vehicles along a very busy highway saw the message, many honking or cheering enthusiastically. [cont’d.]