Ads must not deface Islands' scenic beauty
By Mary Steiner
What is Hawai'i's natural beauty really worth? It depends on whom you ask.
If you ask The Outdoor Circle, the answer is quite different than if you ask the anti-choice Center for Bio-Ethical Reform. The Outdoor Circle is dedicated to keeping Hawai'i clean, green and beautiful. One of its most enduring successes has been keeping billboards out of Hawai'i since 1927. CBR is the anti-choice organization most notable on O'ahu for parking its trucks with graphic images outside of our middle schools.
The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform sued the City and County of Honolulu, claiming the city's ban on aerial advertising denied CBR of its First Amendment right to free speech. In some Mainland cities, CBR is towing 100-foot-long banners behind aircraft depicting what it claims to be 12-week aborted fetuses. That's what it wants to do in Hawai'i, too.
Fortunately, the city stood firm. The Outdoor Circle supported the city as a "friend of the court."
But CBR's aerial banner is only the latest effort to use the blue skies of paradise as a public message board. The Outdoor Circle first became involved in fighting aerial advertising in 1948 when Kinsey Whiskey Co. used a low-flying airplane to tow a large sign advertising its products.
The Outdoor Circle coordinated a campaign that included sending letters to the editors of Hawai'i newspapers and making personal appeals to decision-makers. Soon the airplane was grounded. Later, in 1957, the City Council passed its first comprehensive ordinance regulating signs, and in 1970 the first prohibition on aerial advertising was enacted.
Some may remember that in the mid-1990s, a helicopter flew over Waikiki and the stadium at night with a lighted advertising message. The city was able to use the aerial advertising ban to ground that activity. The aircraft company involved in that effort took the city to court, and the city prevailed. The primary reason — the ordinance is view-point neutral.
Why does The Outdoor Circle care so much? Because our roots are sunk so deeply into the 'aina and our love for Hawai'i's beauty is so great that allowing this special place to be polluted by inappropriate advertising is simply unthinkable. In our nearly 100 years of protecting the scenic environment, we have learned that advertisers will stop at nothing to promote their products. Regardless of how many times they are stopped, they will keep trying to use our Islands as a backdrop for commercialism.
Fortunately, many others feel the same way, including the courts, which consistently recognize Hawai'i's unique beauty as an invaluable asset that must be protected. This was most recently affirmed in the opinion that denied CBR access to our skies, filed May 23 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The court found that "Honolulu's aerial advertising ordinance is part of a long-standing scheme aimed at regulating outdoor advertising in order to protect the critical visual landscape that has made the area famous." The opinion goes on to say, "The linkage between the scenic viewscapes and the economic well-being of Honolulu, including its tourist industry, is not disputable."
We believe the court's ruling upholds one of our most basic beliefs, that the scenic environment of Hawai'i is as valuable a resource as any other part of the environment, and that polluting it — regardless of the purpose — will not be tolerated.
We are thankful to the courts, to our decision-makers and to the people of Hawai'i for their understanding that free speech and the beauty of paradise do not have to be in conflict with each other. This case illustrates perhaps more strongly than the many that have come before it that our sign laws are content neutral and are not the enemy of free speech. These laws are the friends and protectors of a place that is so special that it can never be allowed to be used as a backdrop for selling whisky and the like.
Unfortunately, the problems are not only in the sky but also exist on the ground. Existing laws do not go far enough to protect our visual environment. Violations of local and state sign laws are rampant, and government does not have the resources to force compliance. In an important battle at the 2006 Legislature, The Outdoor Circle won a limited victory against billboard trucks. Vehicles used solely for advertising have been banned, but the law still allows other inappropriate forms of mobile advertising.
For example, banners that would be illegal on commercial buildings are legally displayed on vehicles, such as trolleys. The temptation to sell advertising on the exterior of Honolulu's 500 city buses has been defeated several times in the past, but future showdowns over advertising on buses and the proposed mass transit system are almost certain.
Will our leaders have the courage to reject these shortsighted efforts, or will they cave in to the temptation to sacrifice our scenic beauty in a misguided effort to balance the books?
You can't put a price tag on Hawai'i's beauty. And while its role in fueling the economy of our entire state is undeniable, the primary reason for protecting the scenic environment is because of its value to the people of Hawai'i.
Regardless of how much money you make or where you live or who you know, the beauty of our Islands is for everyone to enjoy equally and forever. And the people of Hawai'i can count on The Outdoor Circle to continue to fight to protect this invaluable resource for another hundred years and beyond.
Mary Steiner is the chief executive officer of The Outdoor Circle. She wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.