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Environmental activists say two Valley billboard companies rejected their advertisement because it is critical of Salt River Project's plans to build a massive coal mine that threatens to destroy the Zuni Salt Lake in western New Mexico.
When the coalition sought to place ads late last year protesting SRP's coal mine project, the environmentalists were shut out of the billboard market.
"They thought the ad was negative speech," says coalition leader Cal Seciwa. "But I think the real true reason was they didn't want to have any conflict of interest with regard to SRP."
Last year, advertisements appeared on several Valley billboards lambasting the Sierra Club for its proposal to restore Glen Canyon in northern Arizona to its natural state by removing the Glen Canyon Dam.
The billboards urged the public to "Stop the Sierra Club from draining Lake Powell." While the Sierra Club didn't like the message, the environmental group did try to embrace the messenger.
"We saw the billboards and decided we should do the same thing to get our message across," says Andy Bessler, southwest assistant representative for the Sierra Club.
Last October, Bessler began negotiations with Clear Channel Outdoor to place advertisements on two billboards in Phoenix. The ad stated: "SRP is targeting our sacred lands. Save Zuni Salt Lake."
The Sierra Club signed a contract with Clear Channel in November and sent a $25,628 check as payment. The Sierra Club – as part of the Zuni Salt Lake Coalition – continued to work with Clear Channel through the month on final design of the advertisement, anticipating that the campaign would launch around Christmas.
But the deal suddenly collapsed in early December when Clear Channel abruptly canceled the contract and returned the check to the Sierra Club.
According to Bessler, Clear Channel backed out of the deal because the company's Arizona division president Manny Molina expressed "personal unease" with the message. Molina did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Bessler says Molina explained that Clear Channel didn't want to accept an advertisement that attacked a company.
Particularly, it appears, if that company is SRP.
The powerful water and electric utility is a major client of Clear Channel and is displaying a series of advertisements on billboards celebrating SRP's 100th anniversary. SRP also leases land to Clear Channel for about 30 of its billboards.
Seciwa says Clear Channel is dealing unfairly with the coalition by accepting advertisements that attack coalition members like the Sierra Club while refusing to accept ads that raise questions about the actions of one of its major clients.
"This was a very shabby business transaction," says Seciwa, who is also a longtime Zuni tribal official.
After the Clear Channel deal collapsed, the coalition tried to reach an agreement with another major outdoor advertising company – Viacom – to display the ad. Viacom, which also has contracts with SRP, declined to enter into a contract.
Seciwa says the billboard companies are unfairly limiting the coalition's ability to communicate its message within the community. "We feel it is a violation of our First Amendment rights," Seciwa says.
Clear Channel Outdoor national president and chief executive officer Paul Meyer says he is not familiar with the jettisoned Zuni coalition advertisement but that the company reserves the right to refuse to display any advertisement.
"We have an obligation to . . . make sure that copy . . . is not offensive to community standards," Meyer says.
He rejects Seciwa's contention that there is a First Amendment violation. Meyer says the company has no constitutional obligation to provide advertising to anyone.
"The First Amendment restricts only government suppressions of speech. The First Amendment has nothing to do with the private parties entering into contractual relationships," Meyer says.
Clear Channel, Meyer says, is in business to make a profit and is very sensitive to the needs of its major clients – particularly clients that purchase advertising and lease the company land for billboards such as SRP.
"I would be disappointed in any of our division presidents that put up copy that is offensive to a good client of ours or to someone from whom we lease land for our billboards. Any other policy would be bad business," he says.
SRP says it had nothing to do with Clear Channel's decision to cancel the advertising contract.
"That's not our style at all," says SRP spokesman Scott Harleson. "If Clear Channel said it didn't want the contract, it didn't want it. It was not a decision based on SRP."
SRP plans to strip-mine more than 80 million tons of coal on more than 18,000 acres of public and private land in western New Mexico. The mine is located 11 miles from Zuni Salt Lake, a historic and religious shrine for many Southwestern tribes. The Pueblo of Zuni owns the lake.
The shallow lake is perched in the caldera of an extinct volcano and provides the only natural source of salt in the Southwest. The site was so important to Native American tribes that the area surrounding the lake for a radius of 10 miles historically was considered a sanctuary zone where warring tribes would set aside hostilities.