By David Loomis
INDIANA – John Placek, the hate-speech billboard guy in Worthington, Pa., has achieved his stated goal – to spark a “conversation” about race in America.
Spark, indeed. When WTAE-TV, the ABC affiliate in Pittsburgh, filmed the offending billboard on the evening of March 25, it was literally sparking where someone had attempted to cut the power to the electronic sign.
Placek’s e-messages date at least to early February, when published photos show a message reading, “I’m a White Man… Get Over It,” accompanied by his image wearing a white cowboy hat and mirrored shades. Another message read, “White American History” and depicted Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers and Henry Ford (a noted anti-Semite). Another in Placek’s “White American History” series listed Columbus, George Washington (a slave-owner) and Abraham Lincoln.
Placek’s more recent messages have turned topical. Last month, the billboard displayed a photo of former East Pittsburgh police Officer Michael Rosfeld, who is white, shortly after he was found not guilty of fatally shooting teenager Antwon Rose, who was black, during a traffic stop last summer. The message labeled Rosfield “policeman” and Rose “criminal.” The caption, as captured by Pittsburgh news media: “Legal System Works, Justice Served, Get over it.”
It may be good news for Placek that his gas station sits in Armstrong County, where the population is 97.7 percent white, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Census. African Americans represent 0.9 percent of the county’s residents.
Elsewhere, reaction has turned Placek’s conversation into condemnation.
Two suppliers of fuel to Placek’s gas station have cut him off, citing his signs. Owners of a sub shop attached to Placek’s gas station say they are scrambling to get out of their lease because their business has dropped by as much as 20 percent since the controversy commenced.
“I believe in freedom of speech, but when it drives division in our nation against those who may not have the same political affiliation, gender, race, beliefs, etc., then it becomes an issue,” Subway franchisee Timothy Murray told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last month. “This sign is an example of someone that has went too far.”
THE REACTIONS of private business people and their customers have been pretty clear. Reactions by some local government officials have been clearer still.
On March 25, state Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong County, responded to complaints from constituents and issued a video statement describing Placek’s messages as “distasteful and divisive.”
“I want you to know that I completely disapprove of this hurtful hate speech,” Pyle said.
Indiana County commissioners followed suit a few days later when Commissioner Sherene Hess spoke in personal terms on behalf of her two colleagues about Placek’s billboard.
“Those racially charged words and sentiments represent hate speech,” Hess said. “And while it is protected speech under the First Amendment, it is hurtful, it is divisive, and it is the opposite of patriotism.”
On Tuesday night, Indiana borough council members unanimously condemned the billboard messages.
“Spreading hateful language does not foster healthy conversation, nor does it consider the incalculable emotional damage to those it is aimed at,” said council President Peter Broad.
BACK IN ARMSTRONG COUNTY, John Placek seemed torn between regret and remorselessness in an interview with the Valley News Dispatch.
“I will not bend, I will not give in,” Placek said. He also expressed regret for offending anyone, then appeared to reverse. “I made a mistake, and I’m not going to apologize for it.”
Let’s see: Who’s missing here?
Worthington borough council President George Kerr on March 27 said municipal officials are powerless.
“It’s out of our control,” Kerr told WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh. “The borough has no control, no authority to control the sign or anything else. It’s a privately owned sign.”
Really? Nothing they can do? Or say?
Suggestion: Armstrong County and Worthington borough politicians can take a prompt from their neighboring elected officials and join the bipartisan conversation. They can take Placek’s First Amendment route and counter his bad speech with good speech by which their constituents and their representatives already have shown the way.
Or they can yield to John Placek and remain mute.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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