Caltrans complies with order to treat all highway banners alike

By Colleen Valles
Friday September 20, 2002


SAN FRANCISCO — Above hundreds of zooming cars on U.S. 101 leading into San Francisco, two Santa Cruz women triumphantly tied a banner to a pedestrian overpass Thursday after a state agency agreed to leave up all signs that do not pose safety hazards. 

Cassandra Brown and Amy Courtney sued the state Department of Transportation after their banners were ripped off highway overpasses while U.S. flags were allowed to remain. Their banner on Thursday read “War. At What Cost? $200 billion. 10,000 dead.” 

Caltrans’ move brings the department into compliance with a January order by Judge Ronald Whyte of U.S. District Court in San Jose. He ordered the agency to enforce its rules on a content- and viewpoint-neutral basis, saying the agency could not grant permit exemptions for American flags. 

“It’s a victory for the Constitution and that’s a victory for all of us,” said Brown, who also hung a banner in Santa Cruz on Thursday. 

The women say consolidation of the media has left Americans with few outlets to get their messages out to a large audience. They say their message is a protest against the use of force by the United States in the Middle East. 

“It’s a bittersweet victory,” Courtney said. “I think the real victory will come when the United States examines its foreign policy.” 

Caltrans spokesman Dennis Trujillo said the department’s policy has not changed, but that it simply decided to comply with the judge’s order while hoping to have it overturned on appeal. The appeal is scheduled to be heard Oct. 9 in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Banners, American flags and any other items hung from freeway overpasses will be removed if they can fall or create a distraction, Trujillo said. 

But James Wheaton, of the First Amendment Project, said billboards along highways pose the same risk of distracting motorists. The organization is asking people to avoid safety problems by putting banners on the inside of fences on overpasses, using sturdy materials that will not shred, and fastening them securely with wire, rope or plastic. 

Courtney and Brown sued Caltrans last year arguing their anti-war banners were taken down because of their content, while American flags were left up. 

The two put up a banner in November reading “At What Cost?” next to an American flag on an overpass crossing busy Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz mountains. 

The sign was taken down by a police officer, and a second sign put up in December also was removed.