January 29, 2008

"It appears to be an obscenity and we will be in touch"

According to Stephanie Farr and William Bender, "Fed up with jet noise, couple raise the roof" (Philadelphia Daily News, 1/24/2008):

Armed with white roof sealant and three choice words, a Ridley Township couple has bypassed bureaucracy and taken their grievances straight to the top - of their roof - in letters 7 feet tall:

"F_ck U F.A.A."

Mark Twain once said: "When angry, count to four, when very angry swear." Michael Hall said he tried the counting. He even counted past four to 20 - the number of times he said he called the Federal Aviation Administration's noise-complaint hotline. But each call, he said, was met with the same response - an automated message telling him the complaint mailbox was full and could no longer accept new calls.

Apparently the actual roof sign did omit the 'u', though it's hard to be sure from the coverage that I've seen so far. In any case, the photo on the right was photoshopped by the newspaper to remove the 'c' and the 'k'.

The best part of the story, for me at least, is the reaction of the Ridley Township manager:

Hall's mother, Anne, who lives two houses down from her son, wasn't as concerned with the picture of the plane as she was with her son's use of one of the most controversial and universal words in the English language.

"It is freedom of speech; I guess you can say what you want to say," she said.

But Anne E. Howanski, Ridley Township manager, isn't so sure Hall has the right to invoke that particular word on his own house, even if it isn't visible from the street.

"I will have to check our ordinance on this," she said. "It appears to be an obscenity and we will be in touch."

Courtesy of the internets, I was able to find the Ridley Township web page, which directs me in turn to www.e-codes.generalcode.com, which allows me to select "Township of Ridley, PA", turn on Fuzzy Logic, Root Word, Phonic and Natural Language (who knew?), and enter the search term "obscenity".

There's extensive discussion under Chapter 62, "adult uses", but this seems to target only "commercial exploitation" of various sorts, not complaints to federal agencies painted on rooftops and visible only from passing aircraft:

The Board of Commissioners find that the commercial exploitation of explicit sexual conduct through the sale, rental and showing of obscene films, videotapes, videodiscs, records, magazines, books, pamphlets, photographs, drawings and devices and the use of massage parlors and model studios for the purpose of lewdness, assignation or prostitution constitutes a debasement and distortion of a sensitive and key relationship of human existence, central to family life, community welfare and the development of human personality, is indecent and offensive to the senses and to public morals and interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property, in that such interferes with the interest of the public in the quality of life and community environment, the tone of commerce in the Township, property values and public safety, and the continued operation of such facilities in a commercial manner is detrimental to the health, safety, convenience, good morals and general welfare of the Township of Ridley and of the residents, citizens, inhabitants and businesses thereof. Accordingly, the Board of Commissioners hereby declares such activities to be illegal as hereinafter set forth and, further, that such activities are hereby declared to be and constitute a public nuisance.

IANAL, but I think that the Halls are off the hook as far as Ridley Township obscenity ordinances are concerned. On the other hand, they might be in trouble on signage issues in general. Chapter 249 on "Signs and Billboards" defines a "sign" as

Any permanent or temporary structure, surface, fabric, device, or display or part thereof or any device attached, painted, or represented on a structure or other surface that displays or includes any letter, word, insignia, flag, or representation used as or in the nature of any advertisement, announcement, visual communication, direction, or is designed to attract the eye or bring the subject to the attention of the public.

and asserts that

No owner or occupier of any land, structure or building shall erect, alter, repair, enlarge remove or maintain any sign as defined herein within the Township of Ridley unless a sign license is obtained from the Township of Ridley.

Perhaps they could claim that the signage ordinance violates freedom of speech -- it does seem to prohibit standard political posters, for example -- and I guess there might be some question about whether riders in passing aircraft constitute "the public". But the Halls do seem to have succeeded in attracting the eyes of a certain number of people -- including, most likely, someone at the FAA. For all the good it will do them, alas.

[Update -- Tom McGrenery writes:

You've probably already had scads of emails about this, but the father of an acquaintance of mine once did something pretty similar in Wales some years ago... tired of low-flying RAF training runs, he painted "Piss off, Biggles" on his barn roof. (Story and photo here.)

It actually seemed to go down pretty well, particularly with the pilots, who ended up referring to 'Biggles' as a waypoint marker for their flights, but at least having the decency to fly higher over the farm.

Alas, the sign is apparently no longer there. More to the point, though, I wondered who or what "Biggles" is. And the Wikipedia tells me:

James Bigglesworth, better known in flying circles as "Biggles", is a fictional pilot and adventurer created by W. E. Johns.

He first appeared in the story "The White Fokker", published in the first issue of Popular Flying magazine, in 1932. The first collection of Biggles stories, The Camels are Coming, was published that same year.


[Chris Mackay, among others, has pointed out to me that Biggles features in a Monty Python skit, available here

Chris observes that there is an extensive discussion of the language/meta-language distinction at the beginning of the skit, deserving a post all its own.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 29, 2008 09:00 PM