Let’s talk about the hateful Uncle Sam sign near Interstate 5 in Washington state, in a community called Napavine (which is just south of the larger town of Chehalis). The sign went up near the interstate a few years before my family moved to southwest Washington in the mid seventies. For just a bit over 10 years I lived about 40 miles from this sign. Additionally, for just short of 35 years, I have had to drive past this racist, sexist, sectarian, homophobic billboard whenever I travel across the state.
It began when the Washington state legislature amended the existing Highway Advertising Control Act in the late 1960s, which placed several restrictions on what sorts of signs/billboard/et cetera could be placed within the line of sight of people traveling on roads funded at least in part by state tax payer money. That prompted Alfred Hamilton, the owner of a turkey farm, to put up his first political billboard. The billboard proclaimed that there are no billboards in Russia. When Hamilton was interviewed about his billboard, he ranted about both state and federal law limiting billboards and how unAmerican he thought the laws were. For various reasons, it wasn’t until 1971 that the state Attorney General’s office started enforcing the amended act, notifying owners of billboards that their signs were in violation of law, and outlining options for resolving it.
You’ll notice on that archive image the phrase “A R Hamilton 7 Turkeys.” At any given time, Hamilton owned a lot more than 7 turkeys, of course. The number 7 was something he used in the branding for his business for years. I don’t know if anyone knows what it’s supposed to mean.
Anyway, he began posting various anti-communist slogans on the billboard, adding the creepy Uncle Sam, while he and the attorney general’s office fought it out in court. He reached a settlement with the state, agreeing to take down the sign, with the state compensating him for the cost of deconstruction. And then, shortly afterward, he put the billboard back up, on a different part of his property. The state law allowed signs of a certain size on the premises of a business so long as the sign advertised the business. He’s tried to qualify for that exemption before, but the court had ruled that while he owned the plot of land where he had initially put the sign up, it wasn’t a spot the public could drive to and make a purchase.
So he moved the sign closer to the building where he had the office. The state came back, arguing that the sign wasn’t advertising his business, in part because he didn’t always mention the farm. So he added the name of the business in white letters on the bottom frame of the sign. And for a few years the top to the sign mentioned which road to take of the exit to get to the business office. Eventually the court decided that while the political slogans were much larger and so prominent that many people driving by would never notice the advertising part of the sign, that it did technically qualify for the exemption.
Because the sign often had racist and homophobic messages in addition to the knee-jerk anti-government screeds, from time to time over the years people living in nearby communities would petition to have the sign removed. There were a streak of years where the guy was really obsessed with gay people, so it seemed that half the time the sign had various homophobic proclamations.
I was trying to find a particular image, because one time, when he found out that the Evergreen State College was hosted a queer film festival, he put up what he thought of as a sarcastic criticism of the festival? But apparently people driving from Portland, Oregon to come of the festival saw the sign and thought it was advertising for the festival.
In the mid-nineties Hamilton sold his farm to a large agro-business and prepared to retire to Alaska. The sign was deconstructed again, and people living nearby thought it was finally going away. But, nope, the billboard went back up nearby. Hamilton’s son still owned some adjacent land where he was running some sort of RV business, and he put the sign up, there. Still quite visible from the freeway. Apparently the messages stopped getting changed out weekly for a number of years. According to one of the articles I found while I was looking for representative pictures, Hamilton was still composing the messages up in Alaska and sending them to his son until his death in 2004. Now the son is carrying on the hateful tradition on his own.
The state has gotten involved a couple of times since, because for quite a while the sign no longer had any advertising on it at all. But eventually the names of the businesses the son was running got added back.
There was at least one point where a group of protestors show up to picket the business and cover the sign with a tarp that had a pro-gay message: 2014: TWACtion: Environmental and Gender Rights Groups Occupy I-5 Billboard.
I’m writing about this today because there’s a new petition calling for the sign to come down: 73,000 signature petition calls for takedown of landmark Uncle Sam billboard.
And I have a few quibbles with some of the people quoted in the various stories about the sign. The first thing is, no slogan that I’ve ever seen on the sign has made me think anything other than, “What an ignorant a-hole!” I mean, I realize if you are as ill-informed as Hamilton was and his son seems to be, I guess some of the signs would make you do something that resembles thinking.
Which isn’t to say that I think ignorant, hateful people don’t have the right to hold those opinions and even express them.
I hate seeing that billboard every time I drive down to visit family (and on the trip back). It usually puts me in a bad mood.
But do I want it banned?
Free speech is a topic a lot of people misunderstand. The Supreme Court has long held that certain categories of speech enjoy less protection (obscenity, fraud, defamation, incitement), but not necessarily no protection. For instance, if the billboard referred to me by name and asserted that I was a pedophile, that would be defamation and actionable. Because it is false and harmful to my reputation. But when/if the billboard said that all queers are pedophiles? While it is false, it’s a bit harder to argue that the statement harms any particular person’s reputation. At least that’s what the courts have said so far. Similarly, the courts have held that public figures have to meet more stringent criteria to sue for defamation than private citizens do.
Hamilton’s original billboard was trying to argue that any regulation of billboards by government was censorship. The government argued that because taxpayers fund highways, that the areas immediately adjacent to highways is public property, and therefore the government has a right to regulate signage to a degree. When they amended the law (after some court cases), they argued further that some regulation of signage in view from designated highways was also permitted. The amended law carved out exemptions, one of which I mentioned above about on premises signage for business purposes.
So, as odious as I think the Hamiltons are, it’s their property, and if they want to advertise their business with racist, homophobic, and similar slogans, they’re within their rights.
I do think that they have intentionally pushed the limits of the law, particularly during the times when there is no mention of the business on the billboard at all. And I think they have done so more out of spite than any noble desire to test constitutional limits. Because of that spiteful nature, I don’t think they will ever succumb to community pressure to quit posting their hate.
I also think that not only are most (if not all) of the things posted on the billboard reprehensible, bigoted, and ignorant—they are also false. Not all lies constitute legal fraud or defamation, but there is a difference between whether something is legal and whether it is moral.
One of my college professors, who was also my debate coach and a mentor, always looked forward to seeing what lunacy was on the sign whenever we were traveling to a tournament that required us to drive past it. And that’s what he called it, lunacy. It so happened that he had grown up in Chehalis, just up the road, and he said for him, the sign was a reminder of why he was glad he wasn’t raising his own kids in that area. “Ignorance is funny, as long as you keep it at arm’s length,” he once said.
Sometimes I wish I could laugh at the sign like he did. Because while I understand his sentiment, I think he’s wrong. As long as some people believe (and vote based on those beliefs) that sort of ignorance and hate, it’s impossible to keep it all at arm’s length.
For some more information, if you’re interested: