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Billboard “vandals”

By Steven | November 15, 2011

Let’s put aside the law for a moment. No doubt the Police can come up with some charges – even if it’s just billsticking – against those who doctored hundreds of National Party billboards by adding the phrases “The Rich Deserve More” and “Drill it, Mine it, Sell it”.

There is no general defence of “freedom of expression”, and although the courts are required to interpret and apply offences consistently with the right to freedom of expression (subject to demonstrably justified limitations), sometimes there’s not much wiggle room for argument.

My point here is different. I think this action was kind of cool. It wasn’t mindless vandalism. It was essentially a prank. It didn’t do much harm. It was contributing more to actual democratic debate about policy than National’s glib billboards were. The added slogans weren’t outright misleading. They actually engaged in the debate; or at least tried to spark one. They were trying to move things beyond the tightly controlled, John-Key-centric and argument-averse campaign being run by National. They had style. They’re pretty funny. They have achieved massive publicity. I admit I tend to sympathise with the sentiment, too, but I like to think I’d feel the same if it were any other parties’ billboards. The other parties’ billboards that I’ve seen aren’t any better than National’s. I should also note that National’s seven pledges billboards are perhaps the most policy-heavy billboards I’ve seen. Good on them for that, even if the promises are focus-grouped to within an inch of their lives.

If the “vandals” broke the law, I’m not going to stand in line and berate them for it. I wouldn’t want to take this comparison too far, but the point is worth making: there’s barely a social movement in the world that hasn’t broken laws to draw attention to their cause – suffragettes, land protesters, environmental campaigner, civil rights workers, anti-apartheid movement, Ghandi, you name it, they all broke laws. I suppose you might say that being punished for it is part of what makes a stand like that significant. Facing the music also draws attention to the cause. Maybe so. But I really wonder if it’s worth the candle.

I think the campaign as a whole would be better for a political culture that tacitly allowed for a bit of subversive tit-for-tat – not wanton destruction of billboards, but clever message-jamming. Is it completely hopeless to imagine an election culture where National responded to this by chuckling, then saying, “well, let’s talk about our mining policy and why we think it’s good for the country”, and then dreaming up a fiendish prank to expose the hypocrisy in the Greens’ billboards?

Topics: Protest speech | 10 Comments »

10 Responses to “Billboard “vandals””

  1. Graeme Edgeler Says:
    November 15th, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    Exactly my thoughts.

    It’s the election campaign equivalent of a Tui billboard prank.

  2. FelixGeiringer Says:
    November 16th, 2011 at 12:14 am

    Yes, agreed. I’ll be interested to see if anything comes of the National Party claim that the stickers beach the election financing laws now that the perp has been identified. There ought to be some Bill of Rights wiggle room there, and if not we may begin to see how much of an infringement on political speech those laws really are.

  3. Graeme Edgeler Says:
    November 16th, 2011 at 10:43 am

    As for electoral laws: the questions seem to me to be:

    1. Are these stickers “advertisements”. I suspect the answer is “yes”, but I don’t think that’s certain.

    2. Can they reasonably be regarded as encouraging you not to vote for National in the election? This depends how much much you give the context: the stickers themselves “The Rich Deserve More”, and “Drill it, Mine it, Sell it” are not at all election-related, they’re not really much by themselves at all. They only take on meaning because they are placed near advertising for the National Party, which is authorised, and which the people sticking the stickers have nothing to do with. If the advertisement is the sticker, and nothing else, I don’t know that I see the necessary encouragement.

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