Is it just me, or does the City of Charleston's new approach to managing public flyers and handbills seem a little bit out of proportion to the problem? Sort of the way Salem's approach to managing witches was a little bit out of proportion to the problem.
On August 29, Kurt Pappenhausen, the owner of The Music Farm, got a surprise in the mail: a $1,087 citation from the City for a violation that had occurred three days before, on August 26. Apparently, somewhere on public property downtown there'd been a flyer for a band that was playing at the Farm. There was no way to tell where the flyer had been or which band's poster it was — every act that comes through the Farm prints up posters or flyers, and Pappenhausen's street team papers the peninsula with them, as they have for years, as similar street teams and venues do in every city of any size in America. If it's a local band, members usually put up the flyers themselves.
At just about the same time, Alex Harris, the owner of the Pour House on James Island, got a similar citation in the mail. On Sept. 18 he appeared in Livability Court for the violation.
"When I went to court they had three different posters they had taken down," Harris says. "The officer also had a handbill he'd gotten off the ground. He said it was dirtying up the city. The judge made me feel like I was a criminal, like he was cleaning up the city. And he believed it, too."
Both citations were part of the opening volley in the City's new crackdown on what it calls snipes — the colorful posters, announcements, and flyers that decorate every city that has a cultural scene worth talking about.
But when did putting up a poster become a criminal act?
Apparently, it's always been one. Or at least for as long as anyone at City Hall can remember. But the Municipal Fists of Fury only started flying when the City began enforcing the law against snipes in earnest on August 18, after the City's Public Information Office decreed that "the City of Charleston will increase the enforcement of the laws applicable to this type of illegal activity and will prosecute violators of these laws."
Hold on a sec. "Illegal activity"? "Violators"? Are we talking about the same people?
At his court appearance, Harris — who doesn't consider himself a criminal per se, despite the City's militant verbiage — learned that his citation was not for a snipe, exactly. It was for a handbill that had been found on the sidewalk. Very possibly it had been on a counter next to a cash register somewhere, where a browsing customer had picked it up while making her purchase, then dropped it by mistake once she'd left the store.
Thus does Harris become a criminal. Apparently, any handbill found on the ground — regardless of how it got there — is as much a violation of the law as a poster that's been nailed to a telephone pole with railroad spikes.
At the Music Farm, Pappenhausen is making all local bands appearing at the club sign a waiver saying they agree not to hang any flyers for their shows. But if they do, he's on the hook. The same goes for national touring acts. If a local fan puts up a flyer for an artist coming to the Farm, it'll cost Pappenhausen $1,087.
"It's a really difficult challenge," Pappenhausen says. "We're trying to educate all our bands on snipe signs, but the definition is broad, and it apparently includes handbills, even if they're on the sidewalk. I don't know what to do about the handbills."
"They're paying a cop to go around take posters down and fine us," Harris observes. "Why don't they just pay someone to clean it up?"