Billboard battles

May 06, 1991

The frustration of Baltimore residents fed up with endless delays over the removal of illegal billboards in their neighborhoods is understandable, but that doesn't justify their taking the law into their own hands.

Last week residents of the Harlem Park neighborhood came perilously close to doing just that when, led by a local minister, they defiantly pulled down an illegal billboard in a symbolic act of civil disobedience. The protesters claimed they wanted to call attention to what they charge is a deliberate effort by the advertising industry to exploit poor communities.

There is no question most of the 1,300 illegal billboards put up over the past two decades are an eyesore and a blight on the neighborhoods where they are located. There is little doubt that these signs, most of which trade in glamorous images of alcohol and tobacco consumption, are aimed principally at exploiting the vulnerability of society's most disadvantaged individuals.

But the courts have already recognized the justice of residents' complaints. Last year a city judge ordered the signs removed after negotiations broke down between Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Boisclair Inc., the billboards' owner. Boisclair has appealed, but it is likely the ruling ultimately will be upheld.

Let the law take its course. The signs have been up for years; they are coming down soon. There is no need to resort to vigilantism, even though the cause may be just. This is one of those times when a little patience can be a virtue.

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