Clear Channel to take down 'voter intimidation' billboards

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Clear Channel Communications has agreed to remove anonymous billboards that critics say were intended to intimidate voters and suppress turnout on Election Day.

The billboards went up in Ohio and Wisconsin and warned of prison terms and fines for anyone engaged in voter fraud. They began to appear in early October and were financed by a "family foundation" that insisted on remaining anonymous.

Clear Channel said the signs violated its policy against anonymous political messages and that it made a mistake in accepting the contract.

"We reviewed the situation and in light of the fact that these billboards violate our policy of not accepting anonymous political ads, we asked the client how they would prefer to work with us to bring the boards into conformance with our policy," stated Jim Culinan of Clear Channel Outdoor. "The client thought the best solution was to take the boards down, so we are in the process of removing them."

Clear Channel also will put up billboards that say voting is a right, not a crime.

On Oct. 22, the United Steel Workers International praised the company’s decision. "Messages that use fear to deny the most basic rights of U.S. citizens go beyond the bounds of 'free speech' when they seek to undermine our democracy," said USW International president Leo W. Gerard in a news release. “These billboards were designed not to educate but to intimidate voters into staying home on Nov. 6.”

The USW is a member of the Election Protection Coalition, which opposes voter suppression efforts and sought removal of the signs.

The group, which last week launched its own billboards to encourage voter turnout, includes Common Cause, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Education Association, the Advancement Project and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“This is an undeniable victory for those of us who care about protecting the right to vote.” said Catherine Turcer of Ohio Common Cause. “Allowing people to intimidate voters and interfere with voting is un-American. Now it’s time for Norton Outdoor to follow Clear Channel’s lead and take down the anonymously funded billboards as well.” Norton Outdoor is the company which put up the billboards in the Cincinnati area. The Clear Channel billboards were in the Milwaukee, Columbus, and Cleveland markets.

Clear Channel said it will remove the signs it owns in Cleveland, Columbus and Milwaukee.

Another company, Norton Outdoor, which owns similar boards in the Cincinnati area, has not said whether it will follow suit.

"It is important that we keep the pressure on Norton so all of these offensive messages are removed," said Mike Scarver, the USW's voter protection project coordinator. "Nobody's vote should be denied because of fear-mongering and bullying like this."