No freedom of speech on billboards – even when you can pay.

Billboard Co. Says No to Soldier Portraits in St. Paul

A billboard company has canceled its contract to display one of photographer Suzanne Opton’s portraits of active-duty soldiers on an outdoor space in St. Paul, Minnesota, site of the Republican National Convention. Opton, a New York-based photographer, shot her “Soldiers Faces” series at Fort Drum, in New York State, between 2004 and 2005, with the permission of the soldiers and their commanders. Having exhibited the portraits in galleries around the U.S., this year Opton launched the “Soldier Billboard Project,” a program to display the images on public billboards in five U.S. cities.

One of her images was to go on display on a billboard in St. Paul last, but CBS Outdoor, which controls the space, canceled the contract. In an email sent to Opton last week, CBS Outdoor Executive Vice President of Marketing Jodi Senese wrote, “The reason we have advised you that we cannot post these as billboards is that out-of-context (neither in a museum setting or website) the images, as stand-alone highway or city billboards, appear to be deceased soldiers. The presentation in this manner could be perceived as being disrespectful to the men and women in our armed forces.”

Each portrait in Opton’s series is a close up of a soldier as he rests his face on a table.

In August, Opton’s photo of a soldier who had served 120 days in Afghanistan was displayed on a billboard in Denver, site of the Democratic Party’s convention. The Denver billboard was arranged with support from the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art. According to a press statement from Opton, other soldier billboards are planned for Houston (with help from DiverseWorks ArtSpace), Atlanta (Atlanta Contemporary Art Center) and Miami. The “Soldier Billboard Project” is supported by funding from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

“We have every intention of moving forward with our plans,” said Susan Reynolds, curator of the Billboard Project.

The nine images that make up “Soldier Billboard Project” are on view at

thanks Alice Arnold

More on billboards denied for anti-war content:
Minnesota ant-war video billboard
“All your arguments about (free) speech are ridiculous”
2004 – Group sues over anti-war billboard and wins (er, settles)

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  1. Crosius says:

    The only reason a business should be permitted to refuse an ad is if they can demonstrate that displaying the ad will have a negative impact on their future business. The billboard is, after all, a private enterprise’s private property and a revenue stream they have legitimate right to protect.

    The arguments offered by CBS Outdoor in this article do not meet this requirement – they are arguing that their corporate etiquette trumps the customer’s desire to spread their message.

    I’d like to know if that company ever ran one of those disgustingly exploitative “United Colors of Benetton” ads on that bill-board. (The one with the protesting-by-self-immolation buddhist monk springs to mind) or one of those graphic anti-abortion billboards. That might illustrate the double-standard more clearly.

  2. Not a shocker.

    Way back in 2000, I contacted my area billboard company (only one that has all of them along HWY 101 north of S.F. – at least then) about taking out ads that read simply “STOP BUSH” and/or had graphics from my stopbush2000 website. The owner of the company told me over the phone that he was a huge Bush supporter, had donated $$$ to the Bush/Cheney campaign, and would never, ever accept my money for such billboards.

    At the time, I was flush with cash. So I went to a local tv station and tried to take out similar advertisements (Channel 50, Santa Rosa). Again, rebuffed.

  3. Swally says:

    Soon commercial and politically commercial free speech is going to be a big issue. As the government tries to tighten regulations on the free market. On one hand the owner/operator of the ad space should be held accountable for professional leveraged censorship, on the other hand magazines,newspapers and publications do this all the time, often in the common interest of decency. Maybe I’m an anarchist but I’m not sure if I believe this is an acceptable reason for professionally licensed censorship, definitely not for state/government/publicly sponsored censorship. Its just the standards are always in flux and I usually feel that any one person or party that is qualified to determine what is acceptable to the common interest is pretty much too powerful and threatens civil liberty. Still it seems that a business concern even one headed by more than one individual should have the right to discern what clients and campaigns it accepts based on what it determines might go against its commercial interests or effect its ethical reputation within the business community it solicits. I guess my temporary solution: Revoke or suspend the individual status of corporate entities(fiscally this would be a bad time for this but socially it is overdue)…its clear that they are not,do not function like, and naturally do not have the ethical tendencies of individuals. This is even true when their structure maintains an individual who has absolute power in their administration. Sole proprietorship perhaps should retain this classification, and maybe some LLC structures as well. It might soon be necessary to draft a new class of rights and responsibilities that govern parties, groups, and commercial interests, CONTROLLED and interested by more than one individual. I suppose consequences and assurances could be administered at the licensing level. Fines,revocations and class action vulnerabilities could be levied to maintain fairness in civil rights and commercial free speech. Meanwhile specific prior policy declaration, along with effective licensing requirement standards for openness in business practice,fair trade adherence and recognized visible alliances with community advocates could be used as vehicles to mostly protect the rights of business owners from having to violate their own sociopolitical ethics to comply with commercial expectations in extreme cases. Also I think its about time to refine antitrust policies to help deal with this issue. Community zoning laws should be reviewed by and conform to micro-federalization initiatives that will oversee compliance to an updated set of regulations that come from such amendments. This will help prevent and remove commercialized “bible belt” kinds of social and political networks in our communities. Also I’m actually quote concerned about the anti advertising movement itself particularly on the internet. To me it seems anti commercial and lending naturally toward a totalitarian communist ethic. Fed by an alarmed and largely misinformed public sentiment against mass marketing, as much as by understandable reactions from gross abuses of new technical mediums by ethically void mass marketers themselves.

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