Was it policy or pressure that led Lamar Outdoor Advertising to tear down billboards featuring a pro-Palestinian political message?
Judge for yourself. Lamar, which operates over 150 outdoor advertising companies in more than 40 states and Puerto Rico, entered into an eight week contract in April with a local New Mexico grassroots group called the Coalition to Stop $30 Billion to Israel to provide ten billboards throughout the Albuquerque area. Each carried this message: "Tell Congress: Stop Killing Children. No More Military Aid to Israel."
Motivated by concern over an Israeli military incursion into Gaza that left more than 1400 Palestinians dead - most civilians -- and another 5,000 injured, Coalition members paid for the messages to register their objection to a 2007 Bush Administration Memorandum of Understanding that provides $30 billion U.S. taxpayer dollars to Israel over a ten-year period - an understanding that the Obama Administration has now adopted as its own. Much of the money will be used to purchase American-made weapons.
Surprisingly, after just three weeks, the billboards were abruptly taken down.
Coalition leaders say correspondence they received from Lamar executives indicated they had removed the billboards - despite the fact that the company's own graphics department had designed them in cooperation with the Coalition -- after having received numerous complaints. Nonetheless, the Coalition and Lamar's corporate officers agreed on May 18 to a modified redesign of the billboards.
But just one week later, Lamar officials turned around again and rescinded their approval. Coalition members say they were told that the company's switchboard had been inundated with phone calls objecting to the billboards.
Lamar's Vice President of Governmental Relations Hal Kilshaw says there's no conspiracy or censorship at play, however. Instead, Kilshaw offers a much simpler explanation for the contretemps: "We made a mistake - twice!"
Both the original and the revised billboards violated the firm's Copy Acceptance Policy, Kilshaw says, since it prohibits "misleading and offensive" advertising. The first effort was misleading, he explains, "because Congress is not killing children." And the second was offensive, "because it still had a picture of a young girl and a tank."
Yet Kilshaw's explanation raises as many questions as it answers. If the first design was so "misleading," why did Lamar agree to accept it in the first place? And why did it stay up for three weeks? "We erred," Kilshaw says steadfastly. "We might have had an over-zealous ad salesperson. But we took it down after it was brought to the attention of the General Manager in Albuquerque."
What about the second design - also created in concert with Lamar executives? "We erred again in approving a redesign and then modifying it," Kilshaw explains. "There was some interim wrangling, we agreed to change it - and then upon re-thinking, decided the revision was offensive."
Asked what Lamar officials found so "offensive" about the second design, Kilshaw said there is "no black and white way to define what is 'offensive,' but like the Supreme Court once said about pornography, I know it when I see it."
Following their second 'error,' Lamar executives came back with three other proposed designs:
"We rejected each and every one of these choices," says Coalition spokesperson Rich Forer. "None had any images. We asked Lamar to include an image of a tank to accompany very similar wording in the three choices Lamar offered us. We also told them an image would not be necessary if they included the following two phrases: 'military aid' and 'tax dollars.' All of these suggestions were unacceptable to them - despite the fact is the U.S. has agreed to give $30 billion dollars of taxpayer money to Israel over ten years for military spending, and Israel in return must spend about 76% of the money on U.S. made weapons. So using 'tax dollars' and 'military aid' are unequivocally accurate."
Earlier this month, negotiations finally reached an impasse. The design that Lamar proposed was unacceptable to the Coalition, which regarded its message as "too watered down and almost meaningless," and found it "vague and missing key elements to the message central in our campaign to end the cycle of military violence in this conflict."
As Coalition member Rita Erickson explained to Lamar executives in an email: "If there were no occupation and oppressive living conditions for Palestinians, there would be no conflict; hence, the impression that we appear to be more sympathetic to Palestinians than Israeli Jews." But Erickson, like Forer, was also quick to note, "We sincerely care about the human rights of both and are very clear that the occupation is not in Israel's best interests."
In a last-ditch attempt at compromise, the Coalition sent still more possible choices for billboards:
1. Tell Congress: No More Tax Dollars for Military Aid to Israel
(No Image Necessary)
2. Tell Congress: Stop Giving Taxpayer Dollars to Israel
(image of tank included)
3. Tell Congress: No More Military Aid to Israel
(image of tank included)
4. Any of the above messages with an image of an Israeli woman on one side and a Palestinian woman on the other side
The emailed response from Lamar? "Sorry original copy as proposed only."
All of the Coalition's money has now been refunded, and Company executives say they reserve the right to reject advertising for any reason whatsoever. But Hal Kilshaw wants to make it clear that "We don't make decisions on political grounds here." Acknowledging the company had received "lots of comments," he says he understands "why the Coalition might think this is political, but it's not. We don't disagree with their message - it just violates our copy acceptance policy."
Coalition members aren't so sure, however. "Their local executive told us they took the first one down because of complaints," says Rich Forer. "As for the second design, someone -- either from the company or an infiltrator within our Coalition -- must have notified people in the Jewish community, because there were lots of complaints about that one as well, even though it wasn't made public!" Forer says information from Lamar employees indicates that pro-Israel groups "may have conducted a pressure campaign to get the billboards removed." He and the others in the Coalition believe the protests were part of a deliberate and organized attempt to silence their right to free speech, and that Lamar is bowing to the pressure. They believe "a coordinated campaign to suppress the public's right to be informed" about the Israeli Government's policies and actions against the Palestinians has been waged against them.
"In contrast to the open debate about U.S.-Israel relations that occurs in much of the world, including Europe and even Israel," the Coalition noted in a recent press release, "this level of censorship is all too common whenever somebody speaks out about Israel's policies, the role of the U.S. in financing those policies and how, by doing so, the U.S. violates its own laws, specifically the Arms Export Control and Foreign Assistance Acts."
What do you think? Was it policy or pressure that caused Lamar to cancel its contract?
The Coalition is now calling "on all people who are concerned about human rights to contact Lamar's corporate offices and respectfully request they put the billboards back up as agreed to on May 18:
Kevin P. Reilly, Jr., President and CEO
Lamar Outdoor Advertising - Corporate
Phone: (225) 926-1000
Mailing Address: P. O. Box 66338, Baton Rouge, LA 70896
Follow Rory O'Connor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rocglobal