Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Roadside Memorials are Protected Speech


While out on a walk in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I noticed this telephone pole in front of the Hess at 1215 North Main Street in Providence.

I am reminded of of an earlier post I called "The Cross as Graffiti: Insulting Christians and Veterans" but there are real differences here, I suspect.

Most likely this is a roadside memorial, placed to commemorate the death of an accident victim. This is a particularly harrowing intersection, and many accidents occur here. These kinds of markers are certainly not First Amendment violations, because they are placed by citizens, acting on their own, and are not endorsed by the government.

However, they are banned in some states, like Massachusetts. At their best, roadside memorials may provide some sense of solace to the victim's families, and serve as a warning to motorists to slow down. Not all roadside memorials are religious in nature either. Ghost bikes, bicycles painted white and chained near to where a bicyclist has been struck and killed don't need any religious symbolism to deliver their message. (I suspect the use of the word "ghost" is purely metaphorical.)

It should be remembered that roadside memorials, ghost bikes and the like, whether they are religious in nature or not, are simply examples of graffiti, however socially acceptable they may be. There is no crime involved in cleaning up graffiti, but it is against certain statutes to create it. However, as humans we do have a right to free speech, and as such I stand solidly behind the right of people to create roadside memorials, within reasonable guidelines of taste and safety.

Roadside memorials are relatively new here in the United States. What reasonable limits should be placed on them?

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